BRUSSELS — European railway operators must pay passengers compensation for delays even if the cause is beyond the company's control, the bloc's top court ruled Thursday in a decision poised to benefit millions.

The European Court of Justice found that Austrian railway operator OBB's policy of refusing to pay compensation for delays caused by acts of nature like bad weather or striking employees was invalid.

Passengers must be paid just the same as for delays caused by the firm's own operations, the Luxembourg-based court said. Under EU rules, railway operators must reimburse a quarter of the ticket price for delays of up to two hours and 50 percent for longer delays.

Train travel is a major form of transportation across the 28-nation European Union. The railway operators of Germany and France alone carry about 3.5 billion passengers per year.

The ruling won't have an immediate financial effect on Austria's OBB since it had already started paying compensation in 2011 when it had been ordered by its regulator to do so, spokeswoman Sarah Nettel said.

Other European railway firms, however, have until now been invoking reasons beyond their control like adverse weather to avoid paying compensation.

Germany's Deutsche Bahn, which has annual revenues of about 40 billion euros ($54 billion), said it welcomed the decision because it established legal certainty. The company claimed it had only rarely invoked force majeure to avoid compensation payments.

Consumer advocacy groups cheered the ruling.

"For passengers, it's the delay that counts, not the carrier's attempt seeking to avoid his legal duty to pay compensation," said Gerd Aschoff, spokesman for the German railway passenger association Pro Bahn.

The railway operator in the EU's second-largest economy, France's SNCF, did not immediately return requests for comment. SNCF, with revenues of about 34 billion euros ($45.9 billion), says it ferries about 4 million passengers per day through France.

The court also clarified that railway firms aren't liable for passengers' losses due to train delays, only partial reimbursements of their ticket.

Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed reporting.

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