Germany’s railways as a public good

We had a bit of a surprise when travelling through Germany on the trains this summer. I had assumed that German railways were excellent. I have German friends who sing their praises, and past experiences have been good. This year, all the legs of our journey through Germany ran slightly late. There were platform alterations, quite a lot of confused people. All the trains were busy and some quite over-crowded.

Since my wife speaks fluent German and loves to talk to strangers, it didn’t take long to find out why. As part of their cost of living response, the government had introduced a summer discount on rail travel. For just €9 a month, citizens and tourists alike could use unlimited regional train travel. Inter-city travel was extra and not every private operator participated in the scheme, but it’s still a remarkably generous offer. Needless to say, millions of people took advantage of the scheme. While some used the ticket to discount their commutes, 20% of tickets were sold to people who don’t use the trains, and that’s why they were so busy.

By the end of the three month run, 52 million tickets had been sold and 1.8 million tonnes of CO2 had been avoided as people took the train rather than drive their cars.

Naturally, many people wanted the scheme to continue, not least because the single universal ticket simplified what had been a fairly complex regional pricing system. After some wrangling over who should pay what, they’ve got what they wanted and Germany has now announced a successor to the €9 ticket. Starting at some point in 2023, you will be able to by a Deutschlandticket for €49 a month. That buys you unlimited travel on regional trains, trams and buses.

At that price, half the cost is borne by the central and the regional governments, with passengers paying the rest. Some argue the price should be cheaper to encourage more train use, or should be means-tested in some way to make tickets more affordable for those on lower incomes. But minus some quibbling around the detail, it looks to have fairly broad support.

This kind of agreement on subsidised rail travel rests on an understanding of railways as a public good. It’s a service, like so many others that citizens depend on. It’s an enabler of many other things: railways provide business connectivity and open up trade. When used for work they connect employers and employees, opening up job opportunities. We saw this locally when a new public transport corridor opened between Luton and Dunstable – a busway in our case rather than a railway – and it helped to create thousands of jobs along the route.

Railways also reduce carbon emissions, air pollution and traffic. That, in turn, reduces stress and ill health, which reduces healthcare spending.

And here’s a key thing: everyone benefits from these positive outcomes, whether they use the trains or not. The more people take public transport, the fewer cars there are on the roads. That means less congestion for those who have no choice but to drive.

We need to be learning from Germany here. Britain’s railways are in a transitional phase. Privatisation hasn’t worked the way it was supposed to, but full nationalisation looks like a step backwards. Even a Conservative government committed to keeping things out of public sector control has had to concede that we need a new compromise. What that exact compromise should be, I don’t know. But I do know that we are much more likely to get a railway that we can proud of, that serves the nation best, and that plays a significant role in low carbon transport, if we approach it as a public good.

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