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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

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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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TRAVEL NEWS

UPDATE: When will Germany’s €49 ticket start?

Germany announced a €49 monthly ticket for local and regional public transport earlier this month, but the hoped-for launch date of January 2023 looks increasingly unlikely.

UPDATE: When will Germany's €49 ticket start?

Following the popularity of the €9 train ticket over the summer, the German federal and state governments finally agreed on a successor offer at the beginning of November.

The travel card – dubbed the “Deutschlandticket” – will cost €49 and enable people to travel on regional trains, trams and buses up and down the country.

There had been hopes that the discount travel offer would start up in January 2023, but that now seems very unlikely.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s €49 ticket

Martin Burkert, Head of the German Rail and Transport Union (EVG) now expects the €49 ticket to be introduced in the spring.

“From our point of view, it seems realistic to introduce the Deutschlandticket on April 1st, because some implementation issues are still unresolved”, Burkert told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland on Monday. The Association of German Transport Companies, on the other hand, said on Wednesday that they believe the beginning of May will be a more realistic start date.

The federal and state transport ministers have set their sights on an April deadline, but this depends on whether funding and technical issues can be sorted out by then. In short, the only thing that seems clear regarding the start date is that it will be launched at some point in 2023. 

Why the delay?

Financing for the ticket continues to cause disagreements between the federal and state governments and, from the point of view of the transport companies, financing issues are also still open.

The federal government has agreed to stump up €1.5 billion for the new ticket, which the states will match out of their own budgets. That brings the total funding for the offer up to €3 billion. 

But according to Bremen’s transport minister Maike Schaefer, the actual cost of the ticket is likely to be closer to €4.7 billion – especially during the initial implementation phase – leaving a €1.7 billion hole in finances.

Transport companies are concerned that it will fall to them to take the financial hit if the government doesn’t provide enough funding. They say this will be impossible for them to shoulder. 

Burkert from EVG is calling on the federal government to provide more than the €1.5 billion originally earmarked for the ticket if necessary.

“Six months after the launch of the Deutschlandticket at the latest, the federal government must evaluate the costs incurred to date with the states and, if necessary, provide additional funding,” he said. 

READ ALSO: OPINION: Why Germany’s €49 travel ticket is far better than the previous €9 ticket

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bahn has warned that the network is not prepared to cope with extra demand. 

Berthold Huber, the member of the Deutsche Bahn Board of Management responsible for infrastructure, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that a big part of the problem is the network is “structurally outdated” and its “susceptibility to faults is increasing.” 

Accordingly, Huber said that there is currently “no room for additional trains in regional traffic around the major hub stations” and, while adding more seats on trains could be a short terms solution, “here, too, you run up against limits,” Huber said.

So, what now? 

Well, it seems that the federal states are happy to pay half of whatever the ticket actually costs – but so far, the federal government has been slow to make the same offer.

With the two crucial ministries – the Finance Ministry and the Transport Ministry – headed up by politicians from the liberal FDP, environment groups are accusing the party of blocking the ticket by proxy. 

According to Jürgen Resch, the director of German Environment Aid, Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Transport Minister Volker Wissing are deliberately withholding the necessary financial support for the states.

Wissing has also come under fire from the opposition CDU/CSU parties after failing to turn up to a transport committee meeting on Wednesday. 

The conservatives had narrowly failed in a motion to summon the minister to the meeting and demand a report on the progress of the €49 ticket.

“The members of the Bundestag have many unanswered questions and time is pressing,” said CDU transport politician Thomas Bareiß, adding that the ticket had falling victim to a “false start”. 

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