Germany’s €9 monthly train pass has proven popular (and a pleasant surprise)

ON BOARD THE TRAIN HAMBURG-WESTERLAND, Germany – Bärbel Hell, who does not usually travel on trains, was delighted to discover that the heavy blue and white regional she had boarded earlier that afternoon was not too crowded.

Even though it was summer and even though the line it was on connects Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg, to the country’s most exclusive holiday destination, the island of Sylt, the coach was not overcrowded.

“It was easy – we found those seats right away,” she said.

Ms Hell, returning from a shopping trip to Hamburg in July with friends, had braced for much worse – not just because of the holiday season, but also because of a special service pricing scheme German national railway of which many here had been skeptical. .

Until the end of August, in an effort to help offset inflationary pressures on so many other essentials of life, especially energy, the government is subsidizing unlimited monthly train tickets for only 9 euros, or about $9.30.

‘I think that helps a lot,’ said Ms Hell, 67, a pensioner, adding: ‘It gives people the chance to get away from it all – because who can afford that with petrol prices these days? ?”

For all the lure of the low price, many regulars on German trains, who have long had to deal with delayed or canceled trips and overcrowded cars, dreaded the expected effect of the promotion.

While it promised to make train travel much more affordable – putting hundreds of euros back in the pockets of regular commuters – it also came across as a burden that could break a system already stretched to its limits.

Even before the tickets were valid, the country’s tabloids were predicting “9-euro chaos” in their headlines.

But the result so far, 10 weeks into the experiment, has been something rare in recent days: a mildly pleasant surprise.

Despite the fact that around a quarter of the German population bought tickets in the first month of the promotion, the influx of passengers turned out to be less of a problem than many had expected.

Instead, the offer, despite a sometimes overcrowded train, became popular. A recent poll for Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, found that 55% of all Germans were in favor of extending the scheme, compared to 34% against.

“This is one of the biggest things that Germany has thought about in recent years – I would say almost decades,” said Felix Lobrecht, a well-known German comedian and social observer, who by his own admission prefers his Mercedes to the trains. a recent podcast.

Still, train regulars from Hamburg to Westerland, Sylt’s main town, were neither ready to declare the plan an unqualified success nor in the mood to forgive some of the past transgressions of the German rail network.

“You have seen a marked increase in the number of travellers,” said Matthias Carstensen, 27, on his way to work at the only McDonald’s in Sylt, which is in the North Sea about four miles from the mainland, to which it is connected by a rail. pavement.

But Mr Carstensen, who has been commuting to work at various jobs on the island for a decade, said the biggest problem was the many delays that plagued the system even before the ticket was introduced. “Recently it’s been really bad,” he said.

Over the past two years, the number of on-time trains has dropped. While it was nearly 90% in 2020, less than two-thirds of trains now arrive at the station on time. The number of canceled trains has also increased.

Most of the blame lies with aging infrastructure and growing demand. Even before the summer promotion, the 3,000 kilometres, or more than 1,860 miles, of track most used by passenger trains were operating at 125% capacity.

The €9 note – courtesy of a €2.5 billion federal grant – was intended to address the sharp rise in energy costs caused in part by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But despite its temporary nature, the ticket promotion is now part of a wider discussion about how to make German society more sustainable and less dependent on Russian oil, through policies that encourage the use of public transport in particular.

“It is the first, and perhaps the only, measure in this energy crisis that has been categorically accepted,” said Luisa Neubauer, one of Germany’s best-known climate activists, noting that the measure helps people from different socio-economic backgrounds more equitably than gas subsidies. or heating do. “It was a huge success.”

Modern German passenger trains generally belong to one of two service levels.

The high-speed network that the country began to develop in the 1990s connects major cities which, by German standards, are far apart. Travelers can pay as much as a plane ticket for the service, but perks include an onboard restaurant, reclining seats, and internet. When these trains deliver as promised, they can make the trip from Berlin to Munich – roughly the same distance as New York to Montreal – in less than four hours.

The workhorses of the German rail system, however, are the most bare-bones regional trains.

Like the six-car Sylt-bound train that roams amidst flat wheat fields and wind turbines at a top speed of 60 miles per hour, they cover routes of up to several hundred miles, connecting cities or neighboring urban areas to their surrounding suburbs. These are the trains that, together with urban public transport, can be used anywhere and anytime for €9 per month this summer.

(A traveler willing to make a number of connections and endure a large number of stops could cross the whole country on the €9 ticket.)

Pamela Seelbach, 38, who had one last cigarette before boarding the train in Hamburg for the three-hour trip to Sylt, said she had saved around €80 a month with the ticket only on daily trips to Sylt. inside and outside the city. The money, she says, has made a big difference in the budget of her family of four.

But what Ms Seelbach liked most about the new ticket, she said, is that her whole family can now take a day trip out of town. “It’s something we wouldn’t normally do,” she said.

Olaf Bösch from Sylt said that while he was against the low ticket price in general – “It’s just too cheap – it’s practically free”, he said – he had benefited of an unexpected advantage. Like most employers on Sylt, Mr. Bösch pays train fares for workers as a benefit. Thus, the three-month program has reduced its costs.

At least one group of train employees, conductors, identified a real benefit from the promotion. Because it is now so rare for anyone to use the train without paying, many conductors have stopped checking tickets.

“We don’t have to deal with fraudsters anymore,” said a driver on the Hamburg-Westerland line, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Apparently everyone has €9 in reserve.”

nytimes Eur

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