Train passengers will get compensation for delays or cancellations under new rules approved by Euro-MPs today.
The cashback deal forces railway companies to refund 25% of the ticket price for delays exceeding one hour and 50% for trains more than two hours behind schedule – but only if the operator can be held responsible for the hold-up.
That means severe rail disruption of the kind triggered by the storms which swept parts of the UK in the last few days would almost certainly not leave rail companies facing huge claims.
But delays caused by “the wrong sort of leaves” on the tracks could prompt passengers to press for their money back.
The agreement comes into force in November 2009, and was only intended to apply to cross-border train services in the European Union.
But EU governments and the European Commission partly backed down after months of wrangling with Euro-MPs who demanded new rail passenger rights on domestic rail journeys too.
The final compromise still allows national authorities to apply to the Commission to be exempted from the compensation rules for up to fifteen years, but one EU official warned: “Any government applying for such an exemption would have to come up with a good reason which would justify it”.
Where the compensation rules are applied, they would only affect “long-distance” domestic routes – with national authorities deciding what constitutes long-distance.
The rules will not apply to urban, suburban or regional routes.
Nor will new requirements on rail companies to provide disabled access, including making arrangements to help them at unmanned railway stations, and making it compulsory to provide specially-designated areas on board with room enough for bikes, wheelchairs, prams and sports equipment.
But the right of rail passengers to take a bicycle on a train will be left up to national governments to decide.
Fine Gael MEP Jim Higgins urged the Irish government not to seek an exemption for national rail travel: “It is very important that these rules are applied to national train journeys in Ireland and I would call on the government not to opt out of the passenger rights provisions.”
British Labour Euro-MP Robert Evans commented: “When this regulation comes into force railway companies won’t get away with treating their customers poorly anymore.
“This agreement is another step in our plans to put consumers first and extend passenger rights to all transport sectors.”
Today’s agreement is part of a wider package of measures to open up competition in rail market across Europe, and establish new standards for train crews, including a European licence for train drivers.
From 2009, all drivers will have to hold a certificate stating that they meet minimum EU-wide requirements for medical fitness, basic education and professional skills.
Belgian Liberal MEP Dirk Sterckx said getting the deal had been “arduous”, adding: “The fact that it was so difficult to persuade all member states to grant basic rights to rail passengers shows how poorly railway authorities treat their customers nowadays.”
British Government officials said it was too early to say whether the UK would seek any exemptions from the requirement on rail companies to offer compensation for delays when the law comes into force.