In spring, Germany's coalition government announced that a heavily discounted nationwide travel pass — the so-called 9-euro ticket — would be made available for June, July and August. Each pass allows ticket-holders to use Germany's public transport network for one calendar month for just those €9 ($9.38).
News of the scheme, devised to cushion rising fuel and living costs, sparked excitement, yet led some to wonder whether the transport infrastructure would be able to cope with an expected spike in passenger numbers. It was significant that national rail operator Deutsche Bahn had already warned in advance that travelers should refrain from taking bicycles on trains starting from June due to a lack of space.
Germany's public transport authorities, who manage and operate travel networks across the country, had little time to prepare. "We had to adjust our sales infrastructure and acquire additional buses, trains and personnel — though I have to say that was not possible at a moment's notice," says Lars Wagner of Germany's Association of German Transport Companies (VDV). The umbrella organization represents over 600 transit authorities and public transport companies in the country.
Many expected jam-packed buses and trains over the Whitsun public holiday in early June. And they were right. Numerous regional trains bound for the popular Baltic and North Sea coast were so crowded that passengers had to be turned away. Taking bicycles along became near impossible.
This passenger volume was largely expected, however, says Wagner. Whitsun, after all, is a public holiday and a time when scores of people typically travel though the country by bus and train each year. The VDV was certainly anticipating crowds would head for popular holiday destinations, embark on weekend trips and visit Germany's major cities.
Berlin and Brandenburg saw a considerable uptick in passenger numbers as well. Trains leaving for the Baltic coast and other popular weekend destinations were heavily frequented, says Joachim Radünz of the Berlin-Brandenburg transport authority (VBB).
Lack of service staff
The budget pass enticed many people who had never or rarely traveled by public transport to give it a go. Lawmakers had certainly hoped for this effect.
However, this caused a whole new set of challenges, says Wagner. Some of these inexperienced travelers did not, for instance, know their way around train stations. This, Wagner says, "caused delays, as disoriented passengers would step off a train onto platforms trying to get their bearings, thereby blocking others from exiting or boarding."
Service personnel at some stations helped travelers find their way and minimize delays. "In Cologne, I saw assistants help passengers quickly embark crowded trains so others can get on too," says Dennis Junghans of Germany's Rail Alliance, an umbrella group that advocates for greater investment in the country's train infrastructure. Junghans, however, says improvements are needed in the coming weeks. He hopes to see much more service personnel assisting travelers at Germany's major transport hubs.
Solid sales figures
So far, there has been great demand for Germany's 9-euro pass. Some 21 million tickets were sold between May, when the ticket became available, and today in July, according to VDV estimates. In addition, some 10 million public transport season ticket holders received the discounted pass as well.
Sales figures have surpassed industry expectations, and so have passenger numbers. Deutsche Bahn reported a 10% increase in people taking regional trains this June. Berlin and Brandenburg recorded an even greater boost, with up to 25% more passengers on certain routes, according to VBB spokesperson Radünz. This almost restores overall passenger numbers to what they were in pre-pandemic times. Indeed, across Germany, "the 9-euro ticket has brought us back to roughly where we were before COVID," says VDV's Wagner.
What's the verdict?
Radünz says the discounted travel pass was a resounding success in Berlin and Brandenburg, where many opted to take trains and buses instead of driving a car. He says "folks used the ticket on weekends, taking their kids and all their kit," heading for northern Berlin, the Spree Forest and other destinations.
But Wagner's verdict is a little more ambivalent. While he was pleased that the 9-euro ticket encouraged many more people to use public transport, he is critical of the scheme's funding: "The Transport Ministry is providing €2.5 billion over three months to compensate for the loss of revenue caused by the artificially low ticket price — and yet no money was made available for extra personnel, buses or trains." With that in mind, he does not see how the scheme can feasibly continue after August. At least not at €9 per ticket.