Anyone who has visited Berlin’s central train station in the sweltering summer months knows what to expect: flocks of tourists navigating the station’s spiralling MC Escher-inspired escalators.
Berliners hoping to escape the city’s oppressive humidity crowd the platforms. Sweat pools on brows and seeps through shirts. Total strangers unite to partake in the German national pastime of grumbling at a 10-minute train delay.
Yet this summer, the mood is somehow different. Designed to offer relief from rising inflation and encourage sustainable travel, Germany has introduced a country-wide €9 rail ticket.
From June to August, travellers can enjoy unlimited use of local and regional trains for just €9 a month.
A bargain on the Bahn
For Diane, who was making the 120-kilometre journey from Berlin to the Mecklenburg lake district, the €9 ticket paid for itself in one trip.
“Although I’d likely still be taking this trip anyway, [the reduced price] does make a difference when planning travel,” she told Euronews.
Diane’s already taken advantage of the €9 ticket a handful of times and says she will get further use out of it through the summer.
The deal is hard to pass up, even for occasional public transit users.
Germany’s association of public transit companies announced that 16 million tickets were sold in their first week of availability. Roughly 10 million Germans with monthly local rail passes also automatically saw the cost of their tickets slashed.
Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany’s national rail provider, confirmed the programme’s popularity.
“Based on government goals, the €9 ticket has had a successful start. It’s provided financial relief for many commuters, and weekday ridership is up 10% over pre-pandemic numbers,” a DB spokesperson told Euronews.
In some cases, the scheme might be proving a bit too popular for its own good.
Critics have demanded further investment in Germany’s rail infrastructure for years. Delays are frequently longer than 10 minutes, and DB reported that a quarter of intercity trains failed to arrive on time in 2021.
Still, after a hectic launch during a three-day holiday weekend at the start of June -- which was marred by overcrowded trains, delays, and heaving transit hubs -- Germany’s rail system seems to be handling the bump in demand, with crowds and delays isolated to typical, popular routes instead of proving comprehensive, as many feared might be the case when the programme began.
“We’re hoping to win new riders and get them excited about mass transit in the long term,” said DB.
To do so, a smooth experience for new riders is imperative.
Saving green to go green?
The €9 ticket is designed, at least in part, to fight climate change by encouraging mass transit use. While early numbers point to a rise in rail travel, it’s still too early to tell if the programme has won over a significant number of car drivers.
In any case, a three-month programme is likely too short to put a lasting dent in transit patterns.
According to Dr Giulio Mattioli, a transport researcher at the Technical University of Dortmund, shifting transportation habits is part of Germany’s broader climate approach.
“Germany’s transport sector is quite unique in being the only sector where emissions haven’t decreased since 1990, they’ve stayed at roughly the same level," he said. "And the current government has targets to reduce emissions 40% by 2030.”
“We know from modelling that won’t be achieved through electric vehicles alone. That needs to be accompanied by a modal shift away from the car,” added Dr Mattioli.
Changing lanes away from car usage is unlikely to come easily, given the auto industry is the nation’s largest industrial sector, a major employer, and wields hefty political influence.
Dr Mattioli argues further investment in rail could help strike a better balance when aiming for overarching climate goals.
“Government expenditure on car infrastructure and use is typically several orders of magnitude higher than that going into alternative modes of transport. It would be good to rebalance that, and if a much cheaper public transport ticket is part of that it would be welcomed,” he said.
Still, Dr Mattioli believes that simply reducing the cost of mass transit alone isn’t enough.
“If you’re aiming for a shift from car to public transport, I think [investing in improving public transport services] would deliver the best outcome. Sure, you can combine that with making it cheaper, but you need to intervene on both fronts,” he said.
The €9 ticket’s climate impact is also dictated by its role as one part of a wider package aimed at providing relief against rising energy prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Alongside the rail ticket, the German state has also offered a one-off tax credit of €300 and a 30-cent per litre tax reduction on gas.
It’s unclear whether the €3.15-billion programme to cut gas taxes will be deemed a success, as gas prices continue to rise at the pump despite the subsidy.
What’s certain is that reducing fuel prices for car drivers will negate at least some of the environmental impact of more affordable mass transit. This speaks to the difficulty of measuring the success of a plan with two, somewhat contradictory goals: reducing emissions and providing inflation relief.
“It’s not clear whether the measure is meant to reduce oil consumption through a shift from car use to public transit, or it was just meant to make things slightly more affordable for people during a cost of living crisis,” said Dr Mattioli.
He claims the ambiguity is due largely to the political reality of Germany’s coalition government -- an occasionally uneasy partnership between the centre-left, greens, and liberals.
“There was a lot of pressure on German policymakers, as in other countries, to cut fuel taxes. In order to strike a balance between different coalition partners, they decided to implement the fuel tax cut, but also to cut the cost of public transport."
"It doesn’t seem like part of a broad strategy, but is more related to striking a balance between different constituencies in government,” Dr Mattioli said.
Transport expenses are just one aspect of the runaway inflation confronting Germans. But even for those who don’t use the ticket to travel the length of the country on the cheap, it makes a big difference.
Mathias, who was embarking from Berlin for a lengthy journey to Nuremberg, said the upcoming trip would be the first time he used the €9 ticket outside of the capital.
“Ordinarily I wouldn’t get a monthly transit pass in Berlin. But that’s the benefit. You can take the metro and buses throughout the whole city, it’s really great,” he told Euronews.
Berlin’s public transit company reported having already sold more than one million tickets in June, a 16% increase over May. A standard fare monthly pass is usually €86, slightly higher than the national average of €80.
A summer fling?
Just how many people will exchange car keys for rail passes in a nation notorious for its automobile infatuation is unclear, especially given the short-term nature of the scheme and ongoing mobility challenges facing rural and poorly-serviced Germans.
Even if it’s predominantly offering commuters and travellers a financial break during a bout of inflation, the programme has proved highly popular.
High transit costs are unlikely to be gone by the end of summer, and the climate crisis is not going anywhere, but the German government will still have to do a lot of internal wrangling when deciding whether or not to extend the programme.
If they do push the €9 ticket forward, whether it remains tied to a fuel tax scheme will likely dictate its climate impact, according to Dr Mattioli, who said he was doubtful one programme would be extended without the other.
Whatever happens, travellers like Diane, Mathias, and millions of others will enjoy cheap trips while they can, even if it does mean putting up with the occasional sweaty, stinky, crowded train.