(this is part of my Rail Postcards to the Transport Commissioner series – you can find all the other postcards here)

Dear Violeta,

I’d hoped to not have to write another one of these postcards to you so soon after my last one. But things go wrong all too regularly with EU-wide rail it seems. This one also concerns a trip that started in Bruges at the College of Europe, a place where you were happy to extol to the students the joys of EU transport policy only last month.

Anyway, this morning I left Bruges at 0657 and got delayed due to trespassers on the track, ending up 40 minutes late in Brussels. These things happen, I understand that. So I go to the ticket office in Gare du Midi to enquire if I can take the 0928 Thalys to Köln, rather than the 0825 ICE I was scheduled to take.

The answer: NO.

Why not, I ask at the ticket office? “It’s SNCB’s fault” the Thalys employee tells me. Well, yes, that is indeed technically the case – my SNCB Brugge-Bruxelles train was delayed. But why can’t Thalys take me? “It’s a private company” she tells me. And what about Railteam I ask – does that not give me the right to get on the next train? No, she tells me, because the train that was delayed was not an international one.

So here I am, sat an extra hour in Brussels, waiting for the 1025 ICE to Köln because Thalys refuses to let me on their train. We did not even get to the stage whether the Thalys was full or not – I was just point blank refused to be allowed to board it.

Now let’s just take a step back here. SNCB – my first train – is run by a 100% Belgian state owned rail company. Thalys, who refused me access to their train, belongs 60% to SNCF (French state owned) and 40% to SNCB (Belgian state owned). My ICE is run by Deutsche Bahn (100% state owned). The track on which the Thalys and ICE run to Köln was built with state means, including EU money. This whole thing in terms of its ownership and the financial investments is as statist as it gets.

Yet when it comes to how the passengers are treated, suddenly these firms behave like the toughest capitalists you can imagine – oh no, you cannot possibly board our train, because you have a ticket for the other one.

It strikes me that this liberalisation lark is not leading to real competition, or something that works in the interests of customers. It’s actually leading to firms trying to shed their responsibilities, to blame others, to not actually help their passengers get to their destinations. Liberalisation of EU rail has generally been a failure.

To add insult to injury, my ticket for this trip was about 3 times as much as a Ryanair flight would cost for Brussels – Berlin. But I try to be green and reduce my carbon emissions. But when EU rail is this bad would you blame anyone for flying instead?

Until next time, safe travels!

9 Comments

  1. Jon, in this case I would have stayed put on the Eupen IC (your 06:57 from Brugge) at least as far as Liege, where one can go to the NMBS ticket office or simply jump on the Thalys (the least reserved coach 28 makes most sense). On the off-chance the IC had made up, say, 25 mins by Liege, it would have been worth asking the conductor about holding the local train from Welkenraedt to Aachen.

    As for 1371/2007 Article 16(b), does anyone have any experience of using a different operator without incurring extra costs, especially where a private (really private, not Thalys) is involved? My one experience is jumping on the InterConnex in Leipzig to go to Berlin on a day when DB’s IC/ICE services were in a complete shambles. The InterConnex conductor wouldn’t accept the DB ticket, so I bought a new ticket from her. DB/Servicecenter-Fahrgastrechte later rejected my InterConnex ticket refund claim on the basis it wasn’t for a DB train. Sadly I gave up after two rounds of correspondence, rather than taking the case to the Schlichtungsstelle as I should have…

  2. Anonymous

    About Article 16 b, note that you made an error in Brussels: you contacted Thalys instead of DB or NMBS. Thalys was not involved in your journey and therefore wasn’t required to do anything. The only companies involved in your journey were NMBS and DB, so they were the only companies required to comply with Article 16 b with respect to your ticket. If you had instead contacted NMBS or DB, then it’s possible that NMBS or DB would have been required to arrange so that you could travel with Thalys based on Article 16 b. Do note, thought, that I remember a case in Sweden some time ago where someone was stuck in Alvesta for seven hours because of a missed connection the ticket was issued for onward travel with Transdev (trains run twice daily) instead of SJ (trains run hourly). I don’t know if the traveller was given any compensation for this. I think that there was a dispute about the exact meaning of Article 16 b: is the company only required to provide information (and make any necessary seat reservations) as soon as possible, or should the alternative train also run as soon as possible?

    When contacting a train company at a station and asking for assistance, verify that:
    a) the company sold the ticket to you, or
    b) the ticket you have bought is issued for travel with this company.
    If this isn’t the case, then you are contacting the wrong railway company. It’s possible that some train companies have an agreement so that you will still get assistance if you contact the wrong train company, but you are not guaranteed any assistance if you contact the wrong train company.

    Also keep in mind that Article 16 b allows you to travel under “comparable transport conditions”. If the original ticket was for travel with a seat reservation, are you still travelling under “comparable transport conditions” if you do not get a seat reservation for the alternative train? This is particularly interesting in the UK where the seat reservation system closes for additional bookings several hours before departure.

    If the total delay exceeds 60 minutes, note that you are also entitled to food and beverages in accordance with Article 18.2 b of the same directive, although how much food and beverages you need depends on the extent of the delay. For a delay of 195 minutes, it’s possible that you are entitled to an entire meal.

    • The problem is that at Gare du Midi all international operators share the same ticket office, with a sort of notional split between them – but you just take a ticket and get sent to one or the other. It turns out that the person I spoke to was from Thalys who *anyway* gave me the wrong information, rather than the correct answer which – by your logic – ought to have been “speak to DB”. So I am not sure your information is a show-stopper.

      • Rian van der Borgt

        Indeed, Thalys should have referred you to DB or NMBS. For reaccomodation in Brussel, NMBS takes care of DB’s matters. Further, passengers shouldn’t have to know all these details and should just be referred to the correct party. I doubt, however, if that would have resulted in a different outcome…

    • Oh and Thalys is a reservation only train. So they can sort a seat for you until the last minute if one is available. So your point on reservations I think doesn’t apply.

  3. Ah ha! Thanks for the additional clarification. YES I did have one contract – I had a DB ticket Brugge – Berlin, and YES, the decision by Thalys was definitely going to make my delay longer than 60 minutes. I’ll write to the Belgian Transport Ombudsman and see what they say.

  4. Rian van der Borgt

    I didn’t mean the Railteam stuff. The question in cases like this one is, provided you have a single contract of carriage, if you’re entitled to take the next connection on the basis of EU Regulation 1371/2007 article 16 option b. Do note that the Regulation only mentions “comparable transport conditions” and not that it must always be with the same carrier as originally booked.

  5. @Rian – strictly speaking Thalys was right. The rules of Railteam meant they did not have to take me, and the individual employee stuck the letter of the rules. So I cannot make a complaint to them really. In the end I arrived in Berlin with a delay of 195 minutes (due to an additional 75 min delay near Löhne in Westfalen), and I have sent all the tickets to DB now, and will get a 50% compensation from them as a result.

  6. Rian van der Borgt

    Please do complain that you had an unnecessary extra hour of delay, first to the company from which you bought your ticket, then (if needed) to the relevant enforcement body.

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