How Europe is reviving rail with free or cheap fares – while Britain is mired in strikes

How Europe is reviving rail with free or cheap fares – while Britain is mired in strikes

Last week, Germany wrapped up a three-month experiment that may well be remembered as one of the most significant public policy actions in addressing both the climate crisis and social wellbeing. It was a state-subsidised €9 (£7) monthly travel ticket, allowing travellers to cross Germany using the country’s cheap travel pass.

Rail operator Deutsche Bahn said it sold 26m ultra-cheap tickets under the bold summer scheme, which also covered metro and bus services nationwide (although high-speed rail services were excluded).

“One in five €9 ticket users has rediscovered public transport,” said Evelyn Palla, Deutsche Bahn’s new regional transport director said, pointing to the 20 per cent of tickets sold to people who do not normally use trains, buses and metros.

In addition, the scheme cut carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to powering about 350,000 homes for a year, according to the VDV public-transport lobby. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it was one of his ruling coalition’s “best ideas.”

Rail passengers wait outside a regional train to Rostock that stopped due to overcrowding after a special nine-euro ticket, that includes the usage of local buses and trains nationwide for a month (PHOTO: REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo)

The experiment generated admirers outside Germany. This week, Spain went even further, making train journeys up to 300km free of charge until the end of the year, with tickets funded by a new windfall tax on banks and energy companies. Other European Union countries are mulling similar offers as they bid to promote rail as a way to travel: Luxembourg has made public transport free for all since 2020, while Malta is set to follow from October.

The recent price-cutting measures to make public transport accessible to people who previously use it, are also softening the blow from inflation, as energy and fuel prices surge. However, they tie in with broader European Union efforts to promote rail as a more climate-friendly mode of transport, including last year’s European Year of Rail programme. In policy terms, the European Commission laid out an action plan last December to boost cross-border rail as part of its efforts to curb emissions, streamline national regulations, cut track-use costs and boost the region’s night-train network.

In Britain, however, it is another matter. A wave of strikes by train drivers and other staff has caused widespread disruption across the rail network, with more planned later this month. The walkouts, over pay, job security and working conditions, come despite some of the most expensive tickets in Europe.

Nor are strikes the only issue facing rail travellers: the summer heat has caused a host of problems, including buckling tracks – an issue that Network Rail said was due to not having the same pre-stressed design as other European countries.

The contrast may seem stark, but the EU is still far from a rail paradise. Strikes have hit both Dutch and French railway networks, and the record passenger numbers in Sweden led to overcrowding. While the €9 German scheme led to a 42 per cent increase in rail travel, it also exposed the chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and capacity – one of the reasons cited for authorities being unable to extend the programme – although this is now a possibility if regions can agree a deal for financing it.

Other EU countries have also been reluctant to stump up the hundreds of billions of euros needed to improve the infrastructure and develop rail as a reliable service. Despite carrying 11 per cent of the EU’s freight and seven per cent of passengers, railways account for only 0.4 per cent of the bloc’s emissions.

And there are particular issues within the EU, including the absence of easy cross-border ticketing systems, and the lack of connectivity between countries: it can take two days to travel by train from Lisbon to Madrid, despite Spain being renowned for its high-speed network.

Jon Worth, founder of Trains for Europe, a campaign group to improve night rail, says EU countries still need to invest much, and overall their cross-border links. But he says the bloc is still on a faster track than Britain.

“The problems afflicting Britain’s railways – viewed from afar – look like a microcosm of the problems the UK faces as a whole,” he says. “A lack of investment, stagnation in real wages, and a state struggling to cope, especially faced with rising energy costs and inflation above that the rest of Europe is facing. It is no surprise that rail workers are even angrier in Britain than in most of the rest of Europe.”

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