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Greta Thunberg sitting next to suitcases on a German long-distance ICE train. (twitter.com/gretathunberg)
Image: twitter.com/gretathunberg
Cars and Transportation

Germany's Left party jump on Greta's train bandwagon

December 16, 2019

Following the PR disaster of its spat with Greta Thunberg, rail operator Deutsche Bahn has announced new investments in high-speed trains. But the German socialist party also wants cheaper train tickets for everyone.


Germany's socialist Left party says the German government should offer everyone in the country cheaper rail travel rather than investing in electric cars to fight climate change.

Speaking to the Rheinische Post newspaper, Left leader Katja Kipping suggested everyone in the country should get a free "Bahncard 50," Deutsche Bahn's (DB) frequent traveller option that entitles passengers to a 50% discount on flexible tickets and a 25% discount on fixed saver tickets. A Bahncard 50 currently costs €255 ($284) per year for second class.

Kipping argued that subsidizing public transport was a more egalitarian way to fight climate change than the government's current plan, which is focused on building up e-car production and infrastructure, since few people can afford electric cars.

New e-cars are currently significantly more expensive than petrol cars. Germany's auto giant Volkswagen recently unveiled the ID.3 as what it hopes will be a cheaper option — though the price is currently still around €30,000. The similarly-sized VW Polo with an internal combustion engine starts at just under €15,000 for the most basic model.

Kipping also called for more improvements to Deutsche Bahn's service, including more room for bicycles and compartments with special work spaces for commuters.

Urs Maier, spokesman for German think tank Agora, which specializes in environmental transport reform, is skeptical about Kipping's suggestion.

"Lowering prices is good is certainly attractive from the customers' point of view." he told DW. "It's good to try and make train travel cheaper, but it is at least questionable whether this will have a sustainable effect."

A DB spokeswoman told DW that the company does not comment on political proposals, but said that 1.4 million customers currently have a Bahncard 50, and that in the coming year long-distance rail travel will be "cheaper than ever before."

Crowded trains, cheaper tickets

Climate activist Greta Thunberg's rail journey across Germany over the weekend has put a new spotlight on Deutsche Bahn, Germany's state-owned rail operator, one of the biggest transport companies in the world.

As Thunberg's experience showed, many intercity trains in Germany are already fairly crowded, which suggests that lowering the prices can only have a limited effect if there aren't more trains and infrastructure to cope with the extra demand.

"In a system that has a lot of delays and a reliability that is not that satisfactory, a price reduction would increase demand, and can such a demand be met?" Maier wondered.

But Maier mainly blamed the German government for DB's current situation. "The government has done too little to invest in infrastructure," he added. "And it did not intervene enough in DB's business." Over the years, DB has turned itself into a worldwide logistics giant, through its subsidiary DB Schenker using mainly trucks, which has, according to Maier, led it to lose focus on its core business of passenger transport in Germany.

"Seeing as the state owns Deutsche Bahn, and that it is meant to have a purpose to serve the public, the government, and past governments, should have made sure that the rail network worked better," he said.

Read more: Deutsche Bahn €3 billion short of cash

Cheaper trains instead of expensive e-cars

The German government's "climate package," currently working its way through parliament, includes some measures to encourage rail travel: sales tax on rail tickets will be cut from 19% to 7%, a cut that DB has pledged to pass on to consumers. It will mean the average rail ticket will become 10% cheaper.

An ICE train in Hannover's main station.
Plans to bolster the rail service already make up a part of the government's new climate change policy proposalsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Stratenschulte

DB also revealed on Monday that it was planning to invest some €12 billion in new trains over the next few years, with around €8.5 billion invested in long-distance ICE trains by 2026. This, the company said, would increase its fleet of high-speed Intercity-Express trains from 39 to 137.

DB's plans would see trains traveling from Berlin to Hamburg every half hour by 2021, and trains threading Hamburg, Hannover, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and Munich every half hour by 2026.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight
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