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Did Germany's 9-euro train and bus ticket pay off?

August 30, 2022

To help people deal with record inflation, this summer Germany offered a sharply discounted fare for local and regional public transit. Was the project a success? It depends on what you wanted out of it.

A woman on a train platform holds up the €9 ticket, which allows travel on all local and regional transport in Germany for just €9 a month.
Between June and August, people could use all local and regional transport in Germany for just €9 a monthImage: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

The public-transportation ticketing system in Germany is so complicated, that there's even a song about it. In "Out of Bempflingen," the Swabian a cappella group "Chor der Mönche" (Choir of Monks) sing of their struggles crossing the no man's land between two of the country's regional transport networks.

"No one's at the desk/Where's a ticket machine?/Getting a ticket from Metzingen to Bempflingen isn't easy," the German group sings of the towns in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg just five kilometers (3.1 miles) apart from each other.

Unable to figure out what ticket to buy, they throw in the towel and walk instead. "It's actually a true story," Michael Niedhammer, one of the band members, told DW. 

This summer, things were different. August 31 marks the end of Germany's 3-month experiment with ultracheap, streamlined public-transportation ticketing. Rather than navigating Germany's 60+ tariff and transport networks, from June to August people could travel nationwide on all local and regional buses and trains (long-distance trains were excluded) with a single ticket. The price? Just €9 ($9) a month.

An add for the €9 ticket is displayed on the app of MVG, Munich's local transit authority
With the 9-euro ticket, passengers could use one ticket to travel through all 60+ transit and tariff systems in GermanyImage: Matthias Balk/dpa/picture alliance

Mission accomplished?

The measure, which German magazine Der Spiegel described as "the largest experiment Germany has ever undertaken on its local public transport system," took people by surprise. The federal government announced it in March as part of a relief package developed to help consumers deal with record-high inflation.

Quick decisions are a rarity in German politics. Major policy moves generally follow long negotiation periods and lengthy consultations with experts and stakeholders.

The 9-euro ticket was an exception, taking even the transportation companies by surprise. As the pilot project wraps up on Wednesday, many are reflecting on the whirlwind summer and whether the nationwide ticket was a success.

"That depends on the goal. What was the goal of the project?" Jonathan Laser, senior consultant at civity Management Consultants, a Berlin-based management consulting firm specialized in the public sector, told DW. "If it was to ease the financial burden of citizens, I would say yes. If the goal was marketing [public transportation], that’s also a yes. But if the goal was sustainability, I would say no."

Price attracted new customers

Over 52 million tickets were sold over the three-month period, according to the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV). An additional 10 million people received the discount automatically via preexisting subscriptions to local transportation networks. Such subscriptions cost around €80 a month in major German cities, according to ADAC, Germany's largest motorists' association. Over the three summer months, these travelers automatically saved over €200.

The deal also pulled in many new passengers. According to a VDV survey, 15% of 9-euro ticket users said that without the special price they wouldn't have taken the trips that they did.

"Millions of people living off of pensions, state welfare or low salaries are normally denied [the luxury of travel]," Ulrich Schneider, CEO of the Paritätischer Gesamtverband — a social work and welfare association — wrote in an opinion essay. "And they will be denied it again when this ticket offer expires."

The rate of inflation in Germany also went down slightly during the experiment, an effect the country's statistics office attributed in part to the low fare.

Is Germany's €9-ticket a gimmick or a role model?

Massive demand exposed flaws

But that news was perhaps of little comfort to hot and tired passengers, who daily took to social media this summer to share horror stories of overfilled trains, broken air conditioning and hourslong delays.

For years, proponents of train and bus travel have complained that Germany has underinvested in this public service. In a country better known abroad for its Autobahn highways and manufacturing Porsches and Mercedes, late and crowded trains had started becoming the norm even before the low-cost ticket was introduced.

The federal government provided Germany's regional 16 states with an additional €2.5 billion to compensate for the loss of ticket sales due to the project. That figure did not include funding for added capacity, personnel or upkeep to cater to the increased demand. With states like Saxony-Anhalt reporting up to three times as many passengers as usual on certain train lines this summer, the chronic underinvestment was thrown into sharp relief.

"The 9-euro ticket has cast a spotlight on the problems with regional transportation," said Ralf Damde, the head of the general works council at DB Regio, a regional subsidiary of Germany's national railway operator Deutsche Bahn. "There are not enough staff and especially too few vehicles to absorb the increase in passenger numbers in the future," he told RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND), which is the joint corporate newsroom of Germany's Madsack Media Group.

Passengers line up to board a regional train at the Karlsruhe Main Station
Passengers complained that trains were overfilled and often didn't run on schedule Image: Micha Korb/picture alliance

Debate over follow-up ticket

Critics of the discounted ticket say the money would be better spent on developing said infrastructure.

"We need every additional euro to expand and improve the service so that local public transport can become a mobility alternative suitable for everyday use," said Reinhard Sager, president of the Association of German Districts, dpa news agency reported.

Despite the uncomfortable travel conditions, as the project winds down, many are advocating for the low rate to be extended, particularly in light of the country's recent failure to meet its carbon reduction targets.

Some 10% of the approximately 1 billion monthly journeys taken using the 9-euro ticket replaced the use of a car, according to VDV figures. This prevented around 1.8 million tons of CO2 from going into atmosphere during the campaign period, the association said in a press release. 

"The solution is obviously not to make public transport less attractive again," one user wrote in a discussion on the social platform Reddit. "But to fix/build the required infrastructure."

Politicians are debating if a next-generation ticket is in the cards and how much it might cost. civity's Laser says price is only part of the story. The project also showed the value of having a streamlined ticketing system.

"We can talk about price, but we should also talk about how complex it is to buy a ticket," he said. "Do we have to have this many different tariff systems to get a price? Or can we make it easier?"

Edited by: Uwe Hessler

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Kristie Pladson
Kristie Pladson Business reporter, editor and moderator with a focus on technology and German economy.@bizzyjourno