ONBOARD THE TRAIN HAMBURG-WESTERLAND, Germany — Bärbel Hell, who normally doesn’t run trains, was pleased to find that the unwieldy blue-and-white regional where she had boarded one early afternoon was not overcrowded.
Even though it was summer and even though the line she was on connects Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg, with the country’s most exclusive holiday destination, the island of Sylt, the bus was not overcrowded.
“It was easy – we found these chairs right away,” she said.
Mrs. Hell, who came home with friends from a shopping trip to Hamburg in July, had braced herself for much worse – not only because of the holiday season, but also because of a special prize program from the German national railway service that many had been skeptical about.
In an effort to help offset inflationary pressures on so many other essentials, especially energy, the government is subsidizing unlimited monthly train tickets for just €9, or about $9.30, until the end of August.
“I think it helps a lot,” said Ms. Hell, 67, a retiree, adding: “It gives people a chance to get away – because who can afford that these days with gas prices?”
Despite the appeal of the low price, many German train passengers, who had long suffered from delayed or canceled journeys and overcrowded cars, were afraid of the expected effect of the promotion.
While it promised to make train travel much more affordable — putting hundreds of dollars back in the pockets of regular commuters — it also loomed as a burden that could break a system that could already break at its limit.
Even before the tickets were valid, the country’s tabloids predicted “9 euro chaos” in their headlines.
But the result so far, 10 weeks into the experiment, has been something rare in recent days: a slightly pleasant surprise.
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Despite the fact that about a quarter of the German population bought tickets during the first month of the promotion, passenger growth proved less problematic than many expected.
Instead, despite an occasional overcrowded train, the offer has become popular. A recent poll for Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, found that 55 percent of all Germans were in favor of extending the program, and 34 percent against.
“This is one of the biggest things Germany has thought about in recent years – I would say almost decades,” said Felix Lobrecht, a well-known German comic and social observer, who says he prefers his Mercedes over trains. on a recent podcast.
Still, regulars on the train from Hamburg to Westerland, the main town on Sylt, were unwilling to declare the plan an unqualified success, nor were they in the mood to forgive some of the German train network’s previous transgressions. .
“You saw a clear increase in the number of travelers,” said Matthias Carstensen, 27, on his way to work at the only McDonald’s on Sylt, which is about six kilometers from the mainland in the North Sea and to which it is connected by a railway line. elevated road.
But Mr Carstensen, who has been commuting for various jobs on the island for a decade, said the bigger problem was the many delays that had plagued the system before the ticket was introduced. “It’s been really bad lately,” he said.
The number of trains arriving on time has fallen sharply in recent years. Whereas in 2020 this was still almost 90 percent, now less than two-thirds of trains arrive at stations on time. The number of trains that are being canceled altogether has also increased.
Most of the blame lies with aging infrastructure and rising demand. Even before the summer promotion, the 3,000 kilometers, or more than 1,860 miles, of tracks most used by passenger trains had a 125 percent capacity.
The €9 ticket – courtesy of a €2.5 billion federal grant – was intended as a response to soaring energy costs caused in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But despite its temporary nature, the ticket promotion has become part of a wider discussion on how to make German society more sustainable and less dependent on Russian oil, including by encouraging the use of public transport.
“It is the first, and perhaps 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 socioeconomic backgrounds more fairly than gas or gas subsidies. do heating. “It has been a huge success.”
Modern German passenger trains generally belong to one of two service levels.
The high-speed network that the country started expanding in the 1990s connects large cities that are far apart by German standards. 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 cover the journey from Berlin to Munich — about the same distance as New York to Montreal — in less than four hours.
However, the workhorses of the German rail system are the more bare-bones regional trains.
Like the six-car Sylt train that meanders through the flat wheat fields and wind turbines at a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour, they cover routes up to several hundred miles, connecting neighboring towns or urban zones with their surrounding suburbs. These are the trains that – together with urban public transport – can be used anywhere, anytime this summer for €9 per month.
(A traveler looking to make a few connections and get through a large number of stopovers could traverse the entire country with the €9 ticket.)
Pamela Seelbach, 38, who smoked one last cigarette before boarding the train in Hamburg for the three-hour journey to Sylt, said the ticket saved her about €80 a month just on daily trips in and out of the city. . The money, she said, made a big difference in her four-member family’s budget.
But what Ms. Seelbach liked most about the new ticket, she said, is the fact that her whole family can now take a day trip outside the city. “It’s something we wouldn’t normally do,” she said.
Olaf Bösch, a Sylt native, said that while he was against the low ticket price in general – “It’s just too cheap – it’s practically free,” he said – he had experienced an unexpected advantage. Like most employers on Sylt, Mr. Bösch pays the train costs for employees as a bonus. So the three-month program has cut its costs.
At least one group of train employees, conductors, has discovered 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 are no longer dealing with fare evaders,” said a conductor on the Hamburg-Westerland line, who asked not to be identified because he was not allowed to talk to the news media. “Apparently everyone has €9 left.”