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Rail passenger rights

Are we thinking correctly about rail passenger rights?

Unsplash Creative 0.0: Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum

"Rail passenger rights" are paid by consumers...

The European Parliament's TRAN committee recently approved new rail passenger rights legislation. With this new text, rail companies will be obligated to re-route passengers for delays of more than 100 minutes, provide bike racks, and assure "through-ticketing" under a single operator. This last requirement means that passengers will be eligible for the right of arriving at their final ticket destinations and that consumer rights requirements do not only apply to one leg of the journey. In essence, if you're taking a Deutsche Bahn ticket from Cologne via Frankfurt to Munich, and start the journey with a delay in Cologne, then DB will be required to get you to your final destination no matter what.

The conversation about rail passenger rights is somewhat similar to that of air passenger rights, drawing the distinction between reimbursement rules and rights to active services. If a company fails to fulfil the service that the customer purchased, then from a mere contractual obligation, the customer ought to be able to choose between reimbursement and re-routing. However, adding additional layers such as compensation models and services on top of the existing services is not something that consumers should be burdened with.

An easy comparison for the purpose of this argument is that of a low-cost airline. Say you fly to a city for a short two-night trip, and you manage to pack all your belongings in a small personal item (like a backpack). With carriers such as RyanAir and EasyJet, you can get the lowest price in the cabin by choosing the most basic options, and sometimes flying to a regional airport that's further away from the destination you're trying to reach. Those wishing to get extra luggage, transport over-sized baggage, more spacious seats, airport lounge also pay additional fees for these privileges. We should not take the highest standard on the aircraft as the norm, and then derive that the basic options are somewhat "deprived" of these rights. 

In contrast, the basic options are opt-outs of these services that some consumers simply don't want or need. On more high-end airlines, some of these services are included in the price, but end up alienating consumers looking for a cheap fare.

The same approach should be taken in the domain of railway mobility. While bike racks are a convenient addition, they do prevent rail operators from selling more access to seats and bring additional financial burden that consumers will end up paying. For state operators running deficits, this is of no particular concern. However, with an increasing number of private rail operators, we cannot pretend as if these companies provide certain services out of mere altruism. If consumers choose certain services, they should be able to pick those services they really want. The same applies to insurances to reach the final destination: as the number of rail operators multiplies, so do the expectations for different service levels. Low-cost providers will make cheap tickets available, with fewer expectations of support in case of delays, while more high-end operators will make sure that customers enjoy the highest possible comfort. Adding to that, insurance companies, sometimes through credit and debit cards, can also offer certain insurances as complementary services.

Consumers aren't a monolithic bloc. Some are students who instead of hitchhiking to a summer camp prefer the cheapest possible ticket, with the longest possible itinerary. These students have different expectations than the Brussels bubble business traveller, and they should not be penalised with ticket price hikes because of additional service and insurance requirements.

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