The decision by one of the country’s main train operators to reduce services on the west coast mainline offers the latest evidence of deep malaise in the rail industry. Citing staff shortages and “the current industrial relations climate”, Avanti West Coast has put an emergency timetable in place, severely restricting the number of inter-city trains serving the north-west and Scotland. Aslef train drivers went on strike on Saturday. This week, the RMT union will resume its strike action over job security, pay and conditions, as the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, seeks to impose cuts of £2bn a year on a sector struggling to return to pre-Covid passenger numbers. It is a black picture and, given the vital role of public transport in reducing carbon emissions, a depressing one. But a glance at the rest of Europe suggests it really doesn’t have to be this way.
In Germany, this has been the summer of the train. In June, the SPD-led coalition government introduced a heavily subsidised and wildly popular €9 monthly public transport pass, designed to get people out of cars and, at the same time, ease the cost of living crisis. In June alone, 31 million people bought one. The most recent data indicates a doubling of short-distance train journeys between 30km and 100km, compared with pre-Covid levels. One in five passengers appear to have taken the opportunity to use public transport regularly for the first time.
Similarly bold experiments are taking place elsewhere, driven by the long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions and the short-term need to mitigate the impact of soaring fuel costs. In Spain, another socialist-led coalition administration is introducing free rail travel for commuters from September until the end of the year, and halving many other fares. Last year, Austria launched the Klimaticket, an annual rail pass that costs about €21 a week. In 2020, Luxembourg made all travel on its trains and buses free. Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, has had free public transport since 2013.
Germany’s radical move costs an estimated €2.5bn in state subsidies. Christian Lindner, the ruling coalition’s liberal finance minister, is insisting that funds are not available to continue the €9 ticket beyond the end of August, when the scheme is due to close. There have at times been uncomfortable levels of overcrowding, and it is uncertain to what extent holiday season travel patterns are relevant to the rest of the year. Initial audits also suggest that car usage may have remained constant. But in a nation famous for its love affair with the car, political imagination has opened up the possibilities of rail travel to more people and pointed the way to a cultural shift in tune with net zero targets. Mr Lindner’s green colleagues in government have called for a successor scheme to be partly financed by ending tax breaks on company cars. As a spokesperson for Deutsche Bahn, the national rail company, said: “Holding on to these riders long-term is important for transport and climate policy.”
It would be nice to think that Mr Shapps – whose approach to the RMT strikes has been to pit the public against rail workers and replay the confrontational politics of the 1970s – has noticed that other countries are doing things differently. Sadly, it seems that managed decline is the peak of this government’s ambition for the railways. A trip to Berlin or Madrid might help the transport secretary see this strategic myopia and short-termism for what it is.