The German government is under pressure to extend the heavily subsidized monthly public transport pass it launched in June.
The ‘€9 Ticket’ scheme, which allows anyone living in or visiting Germany unlimited travel across the country on regional transport for a cost of just €9 (£7.60) a month, is due to expire end of August. It has two purposes: to get people out of their cars and to help ease the cost of living crisis.
In June alone, around 31 million people bought the pass, which can be used on regional trains, buses, trams and underground rail networks. Rail lobbyists and environmentalists hailed it a huge success and it is widely believed to have sparked a welcome buzz around public transport – seizing a valuable opportunity at a time when people have been keen to make up for two lost summers due to the Covid pandemic.
Public transport and lobby groups say the time has come for the government to seize the moment and extend the pass.
Oliver Wolff, chief executive of the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV), said the popularity of the ticket and the joint success of politicians and the transport industry “increases the pressure on what to do a once the program is finished”. Last week, his organization offered a €69 per month pass, which he calculated would be financially viable. A proposal is to rename it “climate ticket”.
Anecdotally at least, Germans have used the pass to travel to parties and weddings that have been postponed during the pandemic, as well as lakeside resorts and popular North Sea coasts and islands. and the Baltic.
The use of the pass is subject to in-depth analyzes on a daily basis. Financial experts say it has even contributed to a slight reduction in the rate of inflation, although they admit that its impact is not enough to help low-income people, as energy and grocery bills continued to soar.
Gerd Landsberg, the head of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, said that while the low cost had arguably been the program’s biggest attraction, its simplicity had also gone down well. “As a result, we need the prospect of having an affordable national ticket in the future that works everywhere,” he said.
However, his organization also warned of the urgent need to invest in the network – including staff – which will come under increasing financial pressure as energy costs rise. Failure to do so could mean the €9 scheme becomes something that is viewed wistfully as having been a “last hurray” for public transport, his organization said.
According to weekly surveys of 6,000 public transport users by the national railway company Deutsche Bahn and the VDV, one in five users took the opportunity to switch to public transport for the first time. Other data shows that people have been encouraged to take trips they otherwise would not have taken. Travel writers, in particular, have embraced this aspect of the program.
In the first week alone, train journeys between 100 km (62 miles) and 300 km in length increased by almost half compared to pre-pandemic levels, and journeys between 30 km and 100 km by nearly 60%. The national statistics office said overall use of the rail network was around 42% higher than in the comparable last month of June 2019 before the pandemic. On weekends, rail use increased by 83%.
Meanwhile, an analysis by satellite navigator provider TomTom found there had been a reduction in car congestion in 23 of the 26 German cities surveyed.
Of the 31 million people who subscribed to the ticketing offer in June, around 10 million already had a subscription to the regional transport network. These users will be reimbursed by local operators to reduce their monthly cost to €9.
Absorption in July appears to have been just as high so far.
Volker Wissing, Minister for Transport and a member of the pro-business Liberal Democrat Party, said he was keen to see how the spirit of the program could be continued, although he said that at a cost of 2.5 billion euros for the public treasury, it is too expensive to be maintained in its current form.
He said the program had highlighted the confusion and lack of clarity of having too many operators with different ticket prices across the country, and he would like to see the whole system simplified.
Critics of the program have been quick to voice what they see as its shortcomings. In some cases, overcrowding on trains forced the police to intervene and passengers had to tolerate standing close to others.
Often people who usually take bikes on regional trains – whether for leisure or to enable a commute to work – have been prevented from doing so due to overcrowding.
While around 45% of Germans would like the scheme to continue beyond August, 43% said they would prefer it not, according to a poll by Civey.
It is still unclear how many people have switched from regular car trips to public transport. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the first few weeks of the scheme there was only a slight reduction in road traffic. This detail is particularly important as people switched from public transport to cars when Covid hit.
The government’s decision to simultaneously introduce fuel pump subsidies has also been widely criticized as a contradictory move, somewhat overshadowing the plaudits it has won around the world for subsidizing public transport.