Subsidised train tickets: Germany and Spain set an example

Several initiatives are underway in Europe to support train travel in the wake of the disruption caused by the pandemic. It turns out that fare subsidies can have a significant impact.

Published On: March 27th, 2023

© Denis Belitsky/Shutterstock

The European Union has taken a number of measures in recent years to support cross-border passenger and freight transport, in particular by supporting new lines and services. There has also been bilateral cooperation between countries: for example, Germany and France are working together to incentivise travel for young adults by offering 60,000 free tickets for people under 27.

Some national measures aim instead to support railway companies for specific services in order to lower prices for the user. This is the case in Belgium, which subsidises night trains with at least one stop on Belgian territory.

Regional initiatives remain the most common. The French region of Occitania (which includes Toulouse and Montpellier) has launched a programme that allows travel on regional trains for one euro every first weekend of the month, with a limited number of the tickets available every day during summer.

According to the EU Agency for Railways (ERA), such regional initiatives have made local people more inclined to use public services, especially at city level.

“In 2019, Västtrafik, the regional transport agency in Gothenburg (Sweden), distributed free 2-week passes valid for travel on buses, ferries and trams. About 20 percent of those who received the free tickets, i.e. 100,000 residents, became regular users of public transport,” an ERA official explained to Voxeurop. Similar cases can be found in zero-fare public transport (FFPT) in Tallinn (Estonia) and Dunkirk (France).

On the other hand, the national initiatives in Germany and Spain may provide an insight into the limits of such policies and the need to complement them. There, pricing is only one part of a broader strategy to boost public transport, reduce traffic and emissions, and promote tourism in peripheral areas.

Germany: a new national programme

Germany launched Europe’s first national programme to boost train travel in the post-pandemic era. For three months during the summer of 2022, a €9 monthly ticket gave access to all regional public transport. The promotion was also part of the German government’s attempt to mitigate inflation.

The German federal statistics office (Destatis) published a variety of data on the initiative, pointing out as early as August that journeys in rural areas in June and July 2022 had increased by 80 percent compared to 2019. The number of train journeys in touristy urban locations increased too, by 28 percent. During the same period, however, road trips returned to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that relatively few people chose to abandon their cars entirely.

The results are in line with other studies. A group of researchers from Munich conducted a study using questionnaires and mobility data obtained from smartphone apps in the German state. The results suggest that 48 percent of people increased their use of public transport. However, only 31 percent of the sample decreased their car use: the majority did not change their previous habits and 5 percent even increased their use of private transport. Eighty-two percent of those who switched from their car to public transport reported that the main reason was the introduction of the €9 ticket.

Data published later showed that the number of train journeys in the three summer months in Germany increased mainly at weekends (+105 percent). The increase was smaller during the week (+24 percent). “After the expiry of the €9 ticket, a decline in mobility to pre-crisis levels was observed in all the distance classes,” Destatis explained in a note, confirming the impact of the subsidies.

The number of train trips of between 30 and 100 kilometres was on average 43 percent higher than in 2019; for medium distances (100 km to 300 km), a 57 percent increase was observed. Long-distance trains, on the other hand, remained more or less at pre-pandemic levels.

The train operator Deutsche Bahn is notorious for its delays, and last year’s surge in users, which coincided with the tourist season, took the existing difficulties to the extreme. Trains were often so full that the Danish press suggested that tourists avoid them. The biggest beneficiaries were young people (including tourists), low-income families and commuters. I personally took 18 regional trains in Germany during the summer; on 15 occasions the trains were late, often by more than an hour.

There was no lack of criticism of the scheme from the liberal FDP party. A member of the governing coalition and now the voice of the German automobile industry, the party emphasised that the measure did not benefit the entire population. Experts accept that this is partly true, but point out that deficient services are often more to blame for low transit use.

“Cheaper or free trains are only part of the story. Governments need to act and invest to increase the availability and reliability of trains