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26 August 2022

The lessons from Germany’s experiment with near-free rail travel

The scheme has proved wildly popular but has also exposed the strain on public transport.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Since June Germans have been the subjects of a small revolution in public transport. The Social Democrat-led government, fearing an energy and cost-of-living crisis in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, introduced a nationwide ticket costing just €9 a month, offering unlimited travel on most public transport apart from express intercity trains.

On 1 September the scheme will end. Christian Lindner, the finance minister, from the fiscally hawkish Free Democratic Party, has opposed the extension of the scheme, calling it too expensive in the long term. As such, many in the country are now asking what lessons can be learned from the three-month-long experiment in near-costless travel in the EU’s largest country.

The €9 ticket was decided on and implemented rapidly and effectively, a rarity in a country with a bureaucracy as procedural as Germany‘s. It was wildly popular: about 38 million tickets were sold over the past three months, equivalent to about half the German population.

“The €9 ticket definitely gives women the option to feel safer when they don’t have to think about the cost of the train to get home late at night,” a friend told me.

Yet the speed of the decision meant that public transport operators had almost no notice to plan for additional capacity on the underfunded transport network. Companies including the state-owned Deutsche Bahn and local operators such as Berlin’s BVG and Nuremberg’s VAG received about €2.5bn in compensation from the government. That made up for the lost ticket revenue but did nothing to cover the cost of the extra staff needed nor the running of additional services.

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As a result, some regional lines, usually serving a succession of sleepy towns, were often filled by passengers using them for weekend trips on their subsidised tickets. “The trains were already struggling,” said Heath Brodie, a Berliner who works in the mobility industry. “They weren’t expected to ever have this kind of high sustained use.”

[See also: Europe faces a leadership vacuum]

Initial media coverage focused on the fact that the €9 ticket offered the possibility for nationwide travel (as long as passengers were willing to put up with slow regional trains and frequent changes). Early discussion of the scheme was dominated by hysteria that young troublemakers might disrupt holidaymakers on Sylt, a posh North Sea island beloved of Germany’s great and good. That obscured the ticket’s primary utility, as a cheap way to get around local areas without worrying about fare zones, ideally instead of driving.

The extent to which the €9 ticket changed transport habits will not be known until a full study of its effects is published in November by the German Ministry for Digital and Transport. Still, available data appears to suggest that it did not change commuting habits much or lead to a significant reduction in car use. It did, however, lead to a marked increase in train travel, suggesting that the ticket was often used for leisure trips people would not otherwise have taken.

One study by the University of Potsdam linked the €9 ticket to a reduction in pollution of about 6 per cent in cities – hardly an earth-shattering decrease. However, another by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research credits government subsidies, primarily the €9 ticket, with keeping inflation as much as two percentage points lower than it would otherwise have been.

The €9 ticket provided near-free travel but many I spoke to also appreciated the simplicity and ease of use it offered. While travellers in Germany are usually required to get to grips with a confusing patchwork of different ticketing systems and fare zones that some have cheekily compared to the Holy Roman Empire, the €9 ticket was valid for all local travel everywhere in the country.

Polls suggest that two thirds of Germans would like the scheme to continue in some form, although that would bring with it further issues.

The main disadvantage of offering almost completely government-subsidised train travel is that Deutsche Bahn and other transport operators would become very largely dependent on the government for funding of their day-to-day operations and longer-term investment. For instance, ticket sales accounted for about 58 per cent of the Berlin public transport operator’s revenue in 2019. Were most revenue from ticket sales to disappear, transport companies would probably require the government to make up most of the shortfall, opening up the risk of lower spending on already underfunded railways. Funding would become even more of a political issue than it already is, constantly at risk of being cut in favour of more urgent priorities.

Germany was not the first European country to experiment with all-but-free public transport. Tallinn, the Estonian capital, has had free public transport since 2013, as has the small nation of Luxembourg. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has expressed support for removing fares on her city’s network. Austria offers a “climate ticket” allowing unlimited travel around the country for about €1,100 a year.

Some countries have implemented temporary subsidies in anticipation of energy shortages this winter. Spain, for instance, will make regional travel free from September for at least three months. Ironically, Germany’s scheme will expire that same month, just as the government is encouraging its citizens to use less energy over the winter.

Debate about how the €9 ticket’s legacy could be built upon abounds. Some federal states have suggested their own versions, such as a ticket costing €365 a year proposed by the conservative Bavarian premier Markus Söder, or the Berlin Social Democratic Party’s suggested €9 ticket, which would be valid in the capital’s central fare zones until the end of the year. A transport industry group has suggested a €69 monthly ticket.

To me, extending the €9 ticket for another three months seems like a no-brainer. Pleading fiscal prudence rings especially disingenuous considering the myriad subsidies Germany offers drivers. With energy prices soaring and a deepening cost-of-living crisis, any measure which saves consumers money and conserves a little fuel seems worth pursuing, at least until we have a clearer understanding of how bad this winter’s crises will be.

[See also: The UK has among the lowest number of public holidays compared to Europe]

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