Passenger Rights and the Rise of Public Transport

Public transport is essential to the quality of life of its passengers, both as a means to move around but also to achieve a sustainable environment. Hans-Liudger Dienel, Director of the Nexus Institute for Cooperation Management in Berlin, Germany, and co-editor of Public Transport and its Users: The Passenger’s Perspective in Planning and Customer Care (2009), tackles the hugely important but often neglected concern over the rights of the passenger when using public transport. He proposes that an improvement in the design of  services offered will lead to a substantial increase in usage, but this depends on transport practitioners and planners talking to travellers in order to understand their needs.

Do better passengers’ rights and more passenger involvement in public transport policy strengthen customer satisfaction and lead to more passengers, and ultimately to growth and improvement in public transport? Or do enforceable passengers’ rights weaken already loss-making transport companies?

A couple of Trans-European research projects on the effects of passenger rights and passenger involvement, conducted by the Nexus Institute for Cooperation Management in Berlin, give clear, documented answers to these questions central to the future and the potential of public transport: In almost all cases that passengers’ rights have been codified and enforced, the number of passengers has increased, the image of public transport and of transport companies has improved; and despite additional expenses, the economic situation of the transport industry has improved as well. A discerning view shows that, particularly in long-distance transport, extensive reimbursement regulations have proved of value, while local transport still has little experience with major compensatory services.

In recent years, the most important motor for strengthening passengers’ rights in Europe has been the European Commission, thus strikingly demonstrating its citizen-orientation. The Commission closely observes individual improvements on the national level and uses them as arguments for the development of new supranational instruments.

Contrary to passenger rights, passenger participation in service design of public transport systems has increased much less in recent years. It’s still much behind user participation for individual transport systems. There is, however, a connection between passengers’ rights and passengers’ participation. Both areas address a new valuation of the passenger: the identification of the passenger as a customer with enforceable rights instead of merely something that is transported, and the inclusion of passengers as collaborative counterparts and decision-makers in identifying weak points and developing proposals for the improvement of the public transport system.

Legal Liaisons and Socio-political Perspective

Besides the comparative transport political perspective, there is a socio-political and a judicial one. The latter particularly emphasises the necessity of enforcing passengers’ rights as customers in relation to their contractual partner, the transport company. This perspective is important and fully justified, but not without its own dangers. “Justitia non calculat”, jurisprudence does no accounting. This old legal motto could be radically applied to passengers’ rights, which many transport companies fear will undermine their basic economic conditions. They refer to legal consumer protection in the US, which has endangered some commercial sectors due to indemnity claims that are sometimes exorbitant. This certainly has a tradition in the US. In the first decade of the 20th century, railways were so weakened by cartel bans and law suits that they almost had to completely give up their fight for passenger transport against competition of the streets. In Europe, the fears that a strengthening of passengers’ rights could weaken the position of transport companies is, however, not empirically demonstrable.

From a socio-political perspective, it is overall desirable to strengthen civic involvement in public commodities. Public transport is a public commodity. Just as the judicial perspective places passengers’ rights at the centre, the socio-political perspective emphasises passenger participation.

Passenger participation is about the development and adaptation of new, more customer-oriented transport systems and the development of solutions that often occur more easily to the customers than to the experts. Customers are experts, so to speak, in their own affairs – and this is not limited to the design of seats, etc. In the 1950s, it was often sufficient for the planning and development of new transport services if transport engineers and planners acted on even their own instincts. Today, technology developers and transport planners have to consult their customers, because post-industrial society has become more divergent, and because engineers and planners themselves often no longer reflect the mainstream of society.

Monopolies, Mismanagement and Metropolitan Moves

Why have public transport experts not discussed these issues for such a long time? And why are they now beginning to become more and more prominent? There are evident historical reasons for this. Firstly, the legal framework for railways and its specific form of customer-orientation developed in times when it actually had a monopoly as a transport system in many areas. As the rise of motorised individual transport put pressure on public transport, it survived in Europe thanks to public support and governmental protection. They were also able to advance by leaps and bounds through the decades-long fixing of fare rates and franchising in goods transport, which held road-based competition at bay. The limitation of enforceable passengers’ rights was also among these factors. This was certainly a justifiable effort to protect an ailing public transport industry against customers’ demands in order to ensure that it would survive at all.

Indeed, in the long-term this was politically disastrous for the transport companies, which slowly but permanently came to be seen as “shrinking”, or on the retreat. Its employees, in contrast to earlier times, had a crestfallen self-awareness, additionally demoralised by increasingly obsolescent technology. These were times when some employees of local public transport systems did not anymore use the services themselves, and even looked at customers with a certain disdain. A growing proportion of the companies’ revenues were no longer earned from passengers, but in the form of subsidies from public funds.

A widespread change has set in since the 1980s. Strengthened by new, ecological arguments for the construction of public transport systems, this change took the shape of investment in new technology, growth, and offensive customer-orientation. It began in long-distance transport with the targeted construction of inter-city transport and, in the 1980s, a new marketing approach and later the new high-speed routes. Large cities invested in new metropolitan transport systems. Until the end of the century, new trains and offerings in regional transport began to emerge. Transport companies and their employees today are not only significantly more customer-oriented than 20 years ago, they are also once more confident about the future and the growth prospects of their service, and therefore are more open to passengers’ rights and passenger participation.

Direction and Developments

In what direction will and should the development of passengers’ rights and passenger participation in Germany and Europe continue? In short: passenger’s rights and passenger participation will continue to increase in importance for three reasons:

a) EU motor forward Passengers’ Rights

Recent studies document how the EU has, for the last few years, been systematically and consistently advancing the development of passengers’ rights. It has been strengthening its work on train, bus and ferry transport and, moreover, has supported cooperation with passenger and consumer organisations on the European level.

On the establishment level, to date we still have mostly only voluntary commitments by transport companies, who see an improved image, new solutions, and in particular more passengers. Indeed there is a recognisable trend: the movement is in the direction of strengthened cooperation with customers in the services of public transport.

b) Governance of Infrastructure

Passengers’ rights and passenger participation exist in the context of a fundamental reconstruction of the infrastructures and service utilities available to the public. This reconstruction is moving away from services for which public governance alone has responsibility and control, and towards services that are designed and maintained together by the state, economic partners, and citizen engagement. In this context, the importance of passenger participation will continue to increase because people who take part want to be heard and to take part in decision-making as well.

c) Participation for a Better Public Transport

Competition is generally seen as an impetus for customer-orientation on the part of service providers; but this rarely occurs. The reforms of recent years have, however, sought to structure transport with an orientation toward competition. Though they only indirectly make competition for the “passenger as end customer” their goal, developments to date have shown positive effects on customer-orientation.

One precondition for customer-oriented service is that companies are aware of customers’ expectations, and that they are given sufficient attention in the planning process. Today however, as the “purchaser” of public transport systems, transport authorities are the most important “customers” for many transport companies. They are carefully monitored, cared for, and served. Indeed if a transport company wants instead to draw more voluntary customers, it should strengthen passengers’ rights and use passengers purposefully to improve their service. Thus, customer-orientation remains an important area for future development in local transport. We have a long way to go in this area; it is, however, a worthwhile process.

We end here: only when public transport systems can compete on the empathetic level with individual transport systems will they have the possibility of developing the market of voluntary passengers. Strengthening passengers’ rights and passenger participation are two ideal approaches to achieving this goal.

Further Reading:

Martin Schiefelbusch, Hans-Liudger Dienel (eds.): Public Tranport and its Users. The Passenger’s Perspective in Planning and Customer Care, Farnham: Ashgate 2009, 304 pp., figures, tables (ISBN 978-0-7546-7447-4).

This book examines strategies for the representation of user interests in public transport from a variety of perspectives.

By Hans-Liudger Dienel

Illustrations by Daria Samokhvalova

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