Bärbel Hell, who is not used to traveling by train, was delighted to find that the heavy blue and white regional train she had boarded in the early afternoon was not too crowded. Even though it was summer and even though the line it was on connects Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg, to the country’s most exclusive holiday destination, the island of Sylt, the coach was not overcrowded. “It was easy – we found those seats right away,” she said.
The hell, returning home from a shopping trip to Hamburg in July with friends, had prepared for much worse – not only because of the holiday season, but also because of a special pricing program of the German National Rail Service of which many here had been skeptical. During the summer months of June, July and August, in an attempt to help offset inflationary pressures on so many other essentials of life, especially energy, the country’s government subsidized lets monthly passes for public transport at will. for only €9.
This is one of the biggest things that Germany has thought about in recent years – I would say almost decades
“I think that helps a lot,” says Hell, a 67-year-old retiree. “It gives people the chance to get away from it all – because who can afford that with petrol prices these days?”
For all the lure of the low price, many regulars on German trains, who have long had to deal with delayed or canceled trips and overcrowded cars, dreaded the expected effect of the promotion.
While it promised to make train travel much more affordable – putting hundreds of euros back in the pockets of regular commuters – it also loomed as a burden that could break a system already stretched to its limits.
Even before the tickets were valid, tabloids across the country were predicting “€9 chaos” in their headlines.
But the result so far, 10 weeks into the experiment, has been something rare in recent days: a mildly pleasant surprise.
Despite the fact that around a quarter of the German population bought tickets in the first month of the promotion, the influx of passengers turned out to be less of a problem than many had expected.
Instead, the offer, despite a sometimes overcrowded train, became popular. A recent poll for Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, found that 55% of all Germans were in favor of extending the scheme, compared to 34% against.
“It’s one of the biggest things that Germany has thought about in recent years – I would say almost decades,” says Felix Lobrecht, a well-known German humorist and social observer, who by his own admission prefers his Mercedes to the trains.
However, train regulars from Hamburg to Westerland, Sylt’s main town, were not ready to declare the plan an unqualified success, nor in the mood to forgive some of the past transgressions of the German rail network.
It is the first, and perhaps the only, measure in this energy crisis that has been categorically accepted
“You have seen a marked increase in the number of travellers,” says Matthias Carstensen, who is 27 and commutes to work at the only McDonald’s in Sylt, which is in the North Sea about 6.5 km from the mainland. , to which it is connected by a railway roadway.
But Carstensen, who has been commuting to work at various jobs on the island for a decade, said the biggest problem was the many delays that plagued the system even before the ticket was introduced. “Recently it’s been really bad,” he says.
Over the past two years, the number of on-time trains has dropped. While it was nearly 90% in 2020, less than two-thirds of trains now arrive at the station on time. The number of canceled trains has also increased.
Most of the blame lies with aging infrastructure and growing demand. Even before the summer promotion, the 3,000 km of track most used by passenger trains were operating at 125% capacity.
The €9 note – courtesy of a €2.5 billion federal grant – was intended to address the sharp rise in energy costs caused in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But despite its temporary nature, the ticket promotion is now part of a wider discussion about how to make German society more sustainable and less dependent on Russian oil, through policies that encourage the use of public transport in particular.
“It is the first, and perhaps the only, measure in this energy crisis that has been categorically accepted,” said Luisa Neubauer, one of Germany’s best-known climate activists, noting that the measure helps people from different socio-economic backgrounds more equitably than gas subsidies. or heating do. “It was a huge success.”
Modern German passenger trains generally belong to one of two service levels.
The high-speed network that the country began to develop in the 1990s connects major cities that, by German standards, are far apart. Travelers can pay as much as a plane ticket for the service, but perks include an onboard restaurant, reclining seats, and internet. When these trains deliver as promised, they can make the trip from Berlin to Munich in less than four hours.
The workhorses of the German rail system, however, are the most bare-bones regional trains.
Like the six-car train to Sylt that cruises amid flat wheat fields and wind turbines at a top speed of around 100 km/h, they cover routes of up to several hundred kilometres, linking the neighboring towns or urban areas to their surrounding suburbs. These are the trains that, together with urban public transport, can be used anywhere and anytime for €9 per month this summer.
At least one group of train employees, conductors, identified a real benefit from the promotion. Because it is now so rare for someone to use the train without paying, many conductors have stopped checking tickets.
“We don’t have to deal with fraudsters anymore,” said a driver on the Hamburg-Westerland line, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Apparently everyone has €9 in reserve.” — This article originally appeared in the New York Times