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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Germany’s €9 ticket for summer is just a gimmick, not a solution

Germany is launching a cheap transport deal in response to rising energy costs. But the flashy offer may actually lead to sharp fare hikes and is not what's needed in Germany, argues Brian Melican.

Passengers queue at an information tram to buy the 9-Euro-Ticket in Halle.
Passengers queue at an information tram to buy the 9-Euro-Ticket in Halle. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hendrik Schmidt

When someone faces constant criticism about one of their character traits, they sometimes react by over-correcting it. In Germany, we’re witnessing the political equivalent of this with the introduction of the nationwide €9 monthly ticket for local transport on June 1st. Yes, after years of being told that it is plodding, excessively risk-averse, and beholden to the automotive industry, Germany’s political class has decided to show that it can do daring, diesel-independent decision-making – and gone completely overboard. It’s like at the end of Grease when Sandy turns up wearing a cat-suit.

The problem for the German government, however, is that while Sandy looked legendarily hot in her outfit, Olaf Scholz’ Tripartite Coalition is set to appear decidedly less attractive (but just as uncomfortable) in its black leather headline-catcher. That’s because, in my view, the €9 ticket will prove to be completely ineffective at best and, at worst, a small-scale disaster.

I know I’m in the vast minority here. Most people in Germany are currently either neutral or indeed wholly favourable towards the policy. Millions have already purchased their tickets and are now happily planning itineraries which, by relying solely on the regional trains covered by the offer, will take them hundreds of miles for less than it usually costs to cross a medium-sized city. Millions more convinced car-drivers, meanwhile, have absolutely no intention of leaving their vehicles at home, but are hoping that the crazily cheap tickets will take some traffic off the roads. What is more, after almost three years of sustained fiscal laxity in the face of continuous crises, all of us have become accustomed to the prospect of millions of euros of public money being lavished on the policy.

A passenger holds an example of the €9 ticket in Cologne.

A passenger holds an example of the €9 ticket in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Oliver Berg

READ ALSO:

What is the German government really trying to achieve?

All of us, however – especially those of us who, like me, have relied on public transport all our lives (I never even learned to drive a car) – would do well to not get caught up in all the general enthusiasm and think more closely about the stated aims of the €9 Ticket and whether it will achieve them.

Firstly, the stated aims are unclear. For the Greens, it’s about luring people away from their cars, a kind of ‘cut-price trial offer’ to reach people who, thus far, would never have considered taking the bus or who retreated back into their motorised cocoons at the start of corona. For the SPD, the primary focus is on giving a cash boost to hard-pressed lower-income workers who, unlike white-collar employees, are more likely to have to actually travel to their place of work and less likely to own a car. The FDP, meanwhile, aren’t really wedded to the policy for any reason, but seem happy enough to go along with it because it provides them with an eco-friendly alibi while they throw millions more at car-drivers in terms of fuel tax breaks – and because looks like the kind of gutsy, “move fast and break things”-style policy approach they’re always claiming they stand for. 

These are aims the €9 ticket will not be able to achieve – or only at the cost of various unintended consequences. For a start, yes, existing holders of monthly season tickets will indeed get a cash break: here in Hamburg, commuters who need the full use of all zones stand to save at least €200 over three months. Yet equally, the millions of ‘joy-riders’ who see this as their ticket to cheap weekends away or a budget domestic summer holiday will also be benefitting from hefty subsidies. Many of them could well have afforded the standard fare. Moreover, many season-ticket holders are, despite galloping inflation, not yet in dire financial straits. As such, a lot of the spending will inevitably be wasted on those who have absolutely no need of it.

The €9 ticket option on a ticket machine in Munich.

The €9 ticket option on a ticket machine in Munich. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Hörhager

Proof of the fact that many users of public transport in Germany do not really need a fare reduction can be found by simply looking at trains and buses in major urban centres: they are full of paying riders. Even though German public transport has no ticket barriers and only sporadic fare checks, rates of fare evasion are low; and even in a global pandemic which has turned a good half of the population into paranoid recluses, ridership is already back up to 80 percent of pre-corona levels. Of course, 80 percent is still too little for cash-strapped public transport authorities, many of whom are welcoming the ticket on the grounds that it will help them get back to 2019 – but does anyone remember what 2019 buses and trains were like? Horribly overcrowded! There is something slightly schizophrenic going on here: while the Health Ministry is saying that public transport is still so dangerous that it is one of the last non-clinical environments in which face masks must remain compulsory, the Transport Ministry is enacting a policy which might as well be subtitled “Just keep packin’ ‘em in…” Poor Karl Lauterbach must be having a fit.

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

Overcrowding and rising fares

Indeed, overcrowding is another area in which the policy is likely to backfire, both by angering regular users whose seats are now being taken by €9-newbies and by giving said €9 ticket-holders a somewhat sub-optimal user experience as they, packed in like sardines, suddenly remember why they never used to like the bus anyway. There will no doubt be an inevitable slew of tweets from travellers posting photos of overcrowded regional trains in which the air conditioning systems have failed, captioned – depending on the character of the user – with either sardonic jibes or histrionic accusations of Covid-irresponsibility. Certainly, the effect for the image of public transport is unlikely to be quite what the Greens were hoping for…

There is potential for an even more spectacular PR disaster, however: a hefty fare-hike in September or January 2023 at the latest. With inflation soaring, one is due anyway, and after three months’ lost revenue from normal ticket sales which the federal Government has only vaguely promised to reimburse, many transport authorities may well have to try and recoup costs from those passengers who still have to keep using buses and trains even after the summer bonanza is over. That, under car-friendly FDP stewardship, the Transport Ministry will be stingy when it comes to paying local transport authorities for its policy is, by the way, almost certain: it is already starting to renege on commitments in last year’s coalition agreement to support infrastructure investment. 

READ ALSO: German public transport costs ‘will rise steeply after €9 offer’, says operator

Travellers queue for a train at Berlin's Ostbahnhof. People are expecting crowded trains during the cheap transport offer.

Travellers queue for a regional train at Berlin’s Ostbahnhof. Transport operators are expecting crowded trains during the cheap transport offer. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Carsten Koall

So in a worst-case scenario, the €9-ticket splurge could halt investment this summer as local transport authorities freeze budgets until they can put a figure on the damage, and then hamper it in the long term as gaping accounting holes have to be retrospectively plugged. This would completely counter the stated aim of getting more people onto public transport because many who would, in principle, be willing to use it are lacking suitable options near their homes or places of work. Whole areas of Hamburg are miles from the U-Bahn, for instance, while entire medium-sized cities like Münster and Kiel rely solely on chronically overloaded busses. The only thing that will fix this, however, is buying vehicles, laying tracks, and training drivers – i.e. concerted investment over years, not temporary fare gimmicks.

How could Germany approach it differently?

In terms of putting money in people’s pockets, but doing it in a sensible, targeted way, why not introduce the €9 ticket for low-income households, and/or specifically for groups such as students and pensioners – but do so on a permanent basis? It could even be extended to every household which doesn’t own a car: if we’re going to throw money at people for using public transport, we might at least chuck it in the direction of those who lessen the load on the exchequer in another way – i.e. by not causing significant wear and tear to the country’s road network.

And if it’s a sexy, eye-catching policy you’re after, here’s one that would cost nothing and encourage some of the missing 20 percent to return to public transport: ending the ridiculous mask requirement. It’s absurd that trade fairs with tens of thousands of visitors are now being held (with no detrimental effect on public health), but that those travelling to the crowded expo halls by bus or train have to mask up. The messaging is wrong and so people are wrongly afraid of public transport or discouraged from using it by the prospect of the dreaded FFP2s. Yes, getting rid of Covid masks on public transport would, on the Grease-policy-sexiness scale, rate as Olivia Newton-John. The €9 ticket is one of the supporting actresses doomed to quickly be forgotten. 

READ ALSO: Why Germany’s energy relief payouts are no fix for inadequate social security

Member comments

  1. I think you made an error in the title, should this not be ‘just a gimmick’ as opposed to ‘a just gimmick’; otherwise this is alright, but is masking on public transport not based on public health advice? i.e. the policy exists to try and stop the spread of COVID.

  2. I think we will find this to be a complete disaster for exactly the reasons in the article. There is no saving grace here. This government has failed to see past the end of their noses, again.

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DISCOVERY GERMANY

Nine of the best day trips from Frankfurt with the €9 ticket

If you want to explore the area around Frankfurt this summer, there are plenty of destinations you can reach in under two hours. 

Nine of the best day trips from Frankfurt with the €9 ticket

Germany’s €9 monthly ticket, which launched in June, is also available throughout the whole of July and August. It can be used on all local transport across the country, as well as on regional trains. 

If you’re based in Frankfurt, or heading there on holiday, these destinations can all be reached on regional transport in under two hours, making them an ideal day or weekend getaway. 

READ ALSO: €9 for 90: Everything you need to know about Germany’s cheap travel deal

1. Heidelberg

People sit in front of the Old Bridge at the Neckar river in Heidelberg.

People sit in front of the Old Bridge at the Neckar river in Heidelberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

With its arched Old Bridge and castle on the hill, it’s no wonder Heidelberg is known as one of Germany’s most romantic destinations. The castle, which dates back to the 13th century, was even immortalised by English romantic painter William Turner in a famous painting from the mid-19th century. 

Stroll the winding gothic streets, pay a visit to Germany’s oldest university and visit have a coffee in the historic centre which still bears witness to the medieval layout of the city.

To get to Heidelberg, take the RB68 direct from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof in 1 hour and 40 minutes.

READ ALSO: Is Frankfurt a good place for foreigners to live?

2. Hessenpark

Historic half-timbered houses and an old fountain in the market square of Hessenpark, a popular excursion destination in the Taunus region.

Historic half-timbered houses and an old fountain in the market square of Hessenpark, a popular excursion destination in the Taunus region. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

Take a step back in time in this fascinating open-air museum. With over 100 reconstructed historic buildings across 160 acres, the park gives visitors a close-up look at 400 years of rural life in Hesse. 

Amongst the highlights are the market place which boasts buildings from the whole state of Hesse; a 15th-century church and an austere school room from the turn of the 20th century.

With lively demonstrations of crafts and agriculture, exhibitions, colourful markets, the museum theatre and themed tours, a trip to Hessenpark makes a great day out for all of the family. 

To get there, take the RB15 from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to Wehrheim Bahnhof and from there, hop on the 63 bus to Neu-Anspach-Anspach Hessenpark. In total it should take you 1 hour and 15 minutes.

3. Darmstadt

A man walks through the Mathildenhöhe UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A man walks through the Mathildenhöhe UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Frank Rumpenhorst

A day trip to Darmstadt is a must for art and architecture lovers, as Hessen’s fourth-biggest metropolis is home to some particularly interesting cultural sights. 

The former artists’ colony on Mathildenhöhe, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most important Art Nouveau sights in Germany and the Wedding Tower and the wacky ‘Waldspirale’ (forest spiral) are well worth a visit.

Also on Mathildenhöhe is the richly decorated Russian Chapel where one of the sisters of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig married Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar. 

You need only half an hour to reach Darmstadt, with a direct ride on the S3 from Frankfurt (Main) South station.

READ ALSO: Less traffic, more ticket sales: How the €9 ticket is impacting Germany 

4. Königstein (Taunus)

The Königstein castle ruins are a landmark of the Hochtaunus town and are among the largest castle ruins in Germany.

The Königstein castle ruins are a landmark. They are among the largest castle ruins in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

At an altitude of around 300 metres on the wooded slopes of the Taunus lies the health spa town of Königstein. 

Königstein has been a climatic health resort since 1935, thanks to the purity of the air in the region and is home to various health clinics. 

Daytrippers can soak up the tranquillity in the parks or in the picturesque city centre.

The ruins of Königstein Castle, which date back to the first half of the 12th century, are also well worth a visit. 

There are several routes to get you to Königstein from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof in under 50 minutes, the fastest being the S5 to Oberursel, followed by the X26 bus to Königstein.

5. Wiesbaden

The Kurpark in Wiesbaden.

The gorgeous Kurpark in Wiesbaden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

​​Nestled in a beautiful valley between the Rhine and the mountains of the Taunus lies Hesse’s capital Wiesbaden. 

There are plenty of things to see on a day trip to the city, including the English-style landscaped garden of the Kurpark, the neo-Gothic Market Church on Schlossplatz and the Hessian State Museum.

Those who fancy trying their luck should pay a visit to the Casino Wiesbaden – one of Germany’s oldest casinos in the former wine salon of the Kurhaus. 

Wiesbaden is also known for its thermal baths and no trip is complete without a hot tub and sauna visit. 

READ ALSO: Weekend Wanderlust – Getting my feet wet in. Wiesbaden

You only need around 50 minutes to reach Wiesbaden from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof with the S1 or S9 to Wiesbaden central station.

6. Felsenmeer

Hundreds of visitors climb over the rocks of the Felsenmeer , which is a popular attraction in the Odenwald.

Hundreds of visitors climb over the rocks of the Felsenmeer , which is a popular attraction in the Odenwald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

Around 60 kilometres south of Frankfurt is a true natural wonder that will delight nature lovers of all ages. 

The Felsenmeer, which literally translates as ‘rock sea’ is a mass of boulders across Felsberg in Oldenwald. The rocks are hundreds of millions of years old, and at the information centre at the foot of the hill, you’ll find all the geological, historical and practical information you need to make the most of a hike through the sea of rocks. 

At the top of the hill, you can reward your exertions with a tasty snack at the kiosk on the summit. 

A trip to the Felsenmeer will take you around an hour and 40 minutes with the RB82 from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to Reinheim Bahnhof, followed by the M02 bus to Reichenbach, Felsenmeer.

7. Limburg (Lahn)

A view of the Lahn river and the cathedral in Limburg.

A view of the Lahn river and the cathedral in Limburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

A visit to Limburg in the west of Hesse, is a bit like travelling back in time to the Middle Ages. There are dreamy castles, palaces, charming half-timbered houses and ancient legends swirling around the city’s cobbled streets.

A particularly visit-worthy ancient relic is the imposing St. Lubentius Basilica. Perched on an outcrop of limestone rocks on the west bank of the Lahn river, it was the region’s most important church until the 13th century.

You can reach Limburg in just over an hour with the RE20 from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.

8. Mainz

A glass of wine stands on a table near the cathedral in Mainz during the Johannisnacht festival in 2019 held in honour of Johannes Gutenberg.

A glass of wine stands on a table near the cathedral in Mainz during the Johannisnacht festival in 2019 held in honour of Johannes Gutenberg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

A short train ride away from Frankfurt, you’ll find the city of Mainz on the Rhine River. Known as Germany’s wine capital, there’s plenty to explore in the cobblestone streets of the Altstadt. Mainz has a steep history after being founded by the Romans.

For more than 1,000 years, the city’s skyline has been dominated by the cathedral.

We’d also recommend checking out the the Gutenberg Museum – one of the oldest museums of printing in the world. And of course, make sure to visit a little wine bar – known as a Weinstube.

Get to Mainz by taking the RE4 from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.  It takes just over 30 minutes. 

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

9. Walldorfer See

People enjoy a dip in the Badesee Walldorf.

People enjoy a dip in the Badesee Walldorf. Photo: picture alliance / Daniel Reinhardt/dpa

What better way to cool off this summer than to head to a lake? The beautiful Walldorfer See, south of Frankfurt, is known for being a little less busy and calmer than the nearby Langener See, which is the biggest lake in the region. 

On the southern shore at the entrance is the large sandy beach which has a snack bar, toilets, plus a beach volleyball and barbecue area. You can also explore the forest around. 

Keep in mind that the lake is near the airport so you will also see some planes overhead (which might be fun, especially if you have kids with you!). 

Get there on the S7 or RE70 from Frankfurt Haubtbahnof, and then jump off at Walldorf (Hess), and get the the 67 or 68 bus in the direction of Frankfurt airport to Mörfelden-Walldorf-Egerländer Straße. It’s then an 18 minute walk to the Badestelle Walldorfer See.

With reporting by Rachel Loxton

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