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,” said Victor Thévenet of Transport & Environment, a European campaign group, to VoxEurop.

More analyses are expected in the coming months. From 1 May, Germany will introduce a monthly ticket for regional trains at €49 per month.

“A €49 ticket could still be expensive for some families”, commented Thévenet. “Companies and governments have to think about specific pricing policies for families.”

Spain: high speed comes first

At the end of August 2022, Spain launched a programme that provides free tickets for short- and medium-distance trains operated by the national operator Renfe.

Trains are free of charge on a reimbursement basis and with a deposit of between €10 and €20. This applies to two types of trains: local commuter trains (Cercanías) and regional trains (Media Distancia Convencional). The national government also introduced a 50 percent reduction in ticket prices for medium-distance high-speed trains (Media Distancia Alta Velocidad).

The schemes were supposed to last only four months, but in October 2022 the finance minister, María Jesús Montero, announced €700 million in funding to extend them to the end of the year. Initial analyses showed significant interest: “2.2 billion multiple-ride tickets have been requested, with 71 percent of passes for Cercanías services and 29 percent for Media Distancia Convencional travel. Renfe also has sold 55,000 tickets for regional high-speed trains,” a Renfe press officer told Voxeurop.

Data on the first two months of the programme show that the train hubs that saw the most extra demand are not the most well-known ones. Malaga, Asturias and Santander recorded increases in commuter ridership of more than 60 percent compared to 2021. They were followed by Seville, Cadiz, Bilbao and San Sebastian (around 55 percent), Valencia (38.1 percent), Barcelona (28.7 percent) and Madrid (25.7 percent).

“The measure is having a very positive impact, although information on the reduction of private car traffic has not yet been published. In any case, free rail tickets are causing a modal shift and some citizens are once again considering rail as an option,” Thévenet commented.

In the last five months of 2022 the number of Cercanías commuters increased by 30 percent compared to 2021 levels. Nonetheless, numbers were usually below those in the same period in 2019.

Media Distancia Convencional regional trains, on the other hand, posted record passenger numbers, up to 50 percent above pre-pandemic levels. It was a similar story for Media Distancia Alta Velocidad high-speed trains.

“The government’s main objective is to expand high-speed rail services in Spain while maintaining the main conventional lines, but not building new ones,” Amparo Moyano, lecturer at the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, told Voxeurop.

Non-subsidised high-speed trains have in fact returned to levels similar to those before the pandemic.

It will be interesting to see the effects of the Spanish programme compared to Germany’s. Will it unlock new ways of thinking about holidays in Europe? Impacts are expected to remain limited in Spain’s peripheral regions, in any case.

“The low population density in some ’empty’ parts of Spain is not conducive to continuous and frequent services, and regional trains in rural areas are not in constant demand. They are mainly needed at weekends,” says Moyano.

A tale of two subsidies

Compared to Germany, Spain’s more modest results may be explained by two data points: its more traumatic experience of the pandemic (2,535 deaths per million inhabitants, against 1,975 in Germany) and its lower per-capita GDP ($30,966 against Germany’s $53,988). The first factor may have kept more Spaniards away from public transport, and the second might constrain prospects for travel in general.

On the other hand, the number of cars per person (0.58 in Germany, 0.53 in Spain) may have limited the impact of subsidies on Germans’ decisions to use the train more, at least in the short term.

Both countries’ governments are due to assess their programmes towards the end of the year so as to decide whether to make them permanent.

In Spain as in Germany, resistance to any decisions to remove subsidised trains is likely to increase over time, as passengers get used to the schemes. This can only help rail travel in the long run, says Thévenet.

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