Rail Revolution? Germany's Flat-Rate Train Ticket
The revolution is arriving on schedule: On May 1, Germany's Deutschland Ticket will go into effect, offering a flat monthly rate for the use of regional trains and local public transportation all across the country. The ticket is only available by subscription for 49 euros a month. It’s a project that Hesse state Transport Minister Tarek Al-Wazir of the Green Party has called "the biggest revolution in public transportation" ever. City limits, regional borders, fare boundaries and even some international borders will no longer matter, he said. Simplicity will prevail. For now, the subscription is nicknamed the "49-Euro Ticket," but who knows how long that price will apply in light of current inflation.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 17/2023 (April 22nd, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.
As far as local transport fares are concerned, Germany is fragmented into principalities on a scale not seen since the Thirty Year’s War. There is no transport association to dictate fares and subscription prices across the country as a whole. No body that could be responsible for enforcing uniform prices. Instead, there are 17 transport ministers at the state and federal level, around 60 regional transport associations and about 600 companies in the local public transport sector. German unity is not reflected in the transport sector.
The first and oldest train station still preserved in the state of Saarland.
You could call it an irony of history, but the story of a flat-rate ticket for Germany began at a gas station. With wind-blown hair, Tobias Hans, the governor of Saarland at the time, found himself standing in front of the Esso gas station in Bexbach in the Saarpfalz district on March 8, 2022. Fuel prices had risen well over the two-euro mark per liter (around $7.60 a gallon) because of the Ukraine war, and state elections were approaching in Saarland. Hans was facing a steep uphill re-election battle.
"This is getting crazy," the governor, who is with the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), dictated into his smartphone. Something needs to be done. "We need price caps on gasoline."
Some perceived the shaky recording as an embarrassing reference to the Ukrainian president's cries for help. But people listened nonetheless, including Christian Lindner, Germany's finance minister from the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). He turned to the mass-circulation tabloid Bild with his demand for a gasoline subsidy.
It was a demand that put the Green Party on its heels. The Greens and the FDP are both part of the tri-party governing coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats (SPD). But the idea of making gas cheaper runs counter to the Green Party's environmentalist positions. How should they respond?
They quickly pulled out an old Green Party chestnut: their call for a national speed limit on highways in Germany, which the country famously does not have. It's a demand the party failed to secure in negotiations to form the government. The next morning, the gasoline rebate became the dominant political topic in the country.
A working group including three representatives each from the trio of coalition parties was assigned to explore the issue, but failed to find common ground. The Greens and the FDP clashed repeatedly, despite the various attempts made by the SPD and the Chancellery to mediate the conflict. Ultimately, it came down to Scholz and his famous negotiating skills.
The story of the Deutschland Ticket is one involving late-night negotiations that actually produced a great idea - a brainstorm that hadn't actually even been on the table. In recent years, Germany has earned a reputation as a country where great ideas are often talked to death, where visions are repeatedly shattered by vested interests. Large renewable energy projects, for example, frequently run up against residents who are disturbed by having the shadows of wind turbines in their yards or the silhouette of liquid natural gas terminals off the coast. So how did the Deutschland Ticket become a reality in a country where, all too often, pettiness prevails?
On March 23, 2022, senior members of the three coalition parties and a handful of ministers from those portfolios affected gathered to meet with the chancellor in the large International Conference Room on the second floor of the Chancellery. They were sitting in two rows around the table, all wearing masks when they got up due to the pandemic. Every now and then, some of those present switched between the first and second row so that no artificial hierarchy was created.
Chancellor Scholz opened the meeting in the early evening. There was food available, but the Chancellery was scheduled to leave soon because the meeting wasn't expected to be a long one. The chancellor hoped that a deal would be reached by midnight to help German citizens with rising energy costs. We need to show leadership, he told the group. Besides, he was also scheduled to fly to Brussels the next morning for a special NATO summit. Before long, though, there was no food left at the meeting but chocolate bars. Drinks, though, were plentiful, including alcoholic beverages.
Scholz's chief of staff, Chancellery Minister Wolfgang Schmidt, as participants will later say, had already opened his laptop by the time the meeting started. The results of the working group were projected onto the screen in the colors of the government coalition parties: green, yellow (for the FDP) and red (for the SPD). Later that night, Schmidt would begin writing up the compromises. He calls this "text work." But the Greens, in particular, fear that interpretive authority, because ultimately, the agreements Schmidt authors tend to hew closely to Scholz's views.
Scholz listened to the positions of the Greens and the FDP until well after midnight and did his best to mediate, but little progress was made. They seemed stuck on the issues of "speed limit" vs. "gasoline rebate." By now, meeting participants hadn't eaten anything but chocolate for several hours. Finance Minister Lindner resorted to ordering out for French fries.
Some would later say that the fries ordered by Lindner helped lighten the mood. At some point, between two and four in the morning, there was finally some movement. During a break in which the chancellor was chatting with the Green Party leadership – Economics Minister Robert Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock were there – Transport Minister Volker Wissing of the FDP joined them. He said he had an idea: How about making public transport extremely cheap, almost free, for the period of the proposed gasoline rebate?
Even during his time as transportation minister in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Wissing had never been happy with the extremely complicated price structures for Germany's public transportation systems.
Wissing's idea caught the Greens off guard. They had also been considering putting the idea of a steep discount for train travel into play. "We had that card up our sleeve," says one person involved in preparing the negotiations. But they never played it. Probably out of fear that it, too, would be discarded and that they would be dismissed as dreamers.
After brief consultation, the Greens decided to abandon the demand for the speed limit in favor of Wissing's train ticket. And early in the morning, item nine of Chancellor Minister Schmidt's newly adjusted presentation read: "… we are introducing a ticket for nine euros/month ("nine for 90") for 90 days and will increase regional subsidies from the federal government so that the states can organize this."
That marked the birth of the first Deutschland Ticket. A Green Party idea that was brought into play by a minister with the car-friendly FDP, initially only conceived as a means of breaking a political logjam over a gasoline rebate within the coalition government. Officials at the finance and transport ministries quickly began running the numbers and found that it could actually work.
When negotiators finally addressed the press at 11 a.m. the next morning after their all-night session, FDP leader Lindner left it to the Greens to present the super ticket: a nationwide, affordable flat-rate for public transportation and regional trains that would be available to everyone. A revolution that had been decided in one night.
Germany's transport companies first learned about the new ticket through the news. "We knew who had made the decision, but not much else," says Till Ackermann, sitting upstairs on the fourth floor of VDV's offices in Cologne, as he flips open his laptop.
VDV represents around 650 transport companies, large and small, rail and bus, and many had questions. Do you know about this? A set price for everything? How is that supposed to work?
Ackermann, whose doctoral thesis in 1998 examined the question of what a one-minute delay costs German national railway Deutsche Bahn (280 deutsche marks), was commissioned by a working group of the federal and state governments to perform a study to examine the effects of the new ticket.
The resulting study, called "Effects and Potential of the 9-Euro Ticket and Future Offers" involved interviews with 78,000 people around the country. It found that the 9-Euro Ticket produced 1.8 million tons of CO2 savings. Around 10 percent of trips taken in Germany from June to August 2022 were made by rail instead of car, he says.
According to Ackermann's surveys, 98 percent of all Germans knew about the ticket, and 52 million of them were sold, with 7 million of those being sold in advance. Every fifth purchaser was a new customer.
The ticket was quickly considered a success – a small miracle amid all the bad news about war and crisis. The ticket came at a cost of 2.5 billion euros to the German federal government.
In the first days, it also produced a fair amount of chaos. News broadcasts showed images of overcrowded trains, and some even had to be evacuated one early holiday weekend.
A study performed by the Erfurt University of Applied Sciences sought to explore how sustainable the ticket really was. The university sent its questionnaire to around 6,000 residents in Erfurt's six lowest-income neighborhoods, and the study found that the three months during which the 9-Euro Ticket had been in effect had primarily served as a social experiment.
"The 9-Euro Ticket showed me that you don't have to be alone." (Retiree, 63)
"… Otherwise, I would have just hung out at home." (Man, 47, employed)
"I finally got a sense of having a life again." (Woman, 86, retired)
"I think it's good for my child. That way she can always get on the train and I know that she isn't having to dodge the fare." (Woman, 38, jobless)
"There's still some money left now to live on." (Retiree, 80 years old)
"Nine euros is a lot of money for me!!!" (Man, 35, employed)
"It's nice to be able to just spend a day in another city …" (Female, 73, retired)
"It has made a lot of people feel freer." (Man, 38, employed)
People with more money tended to take the 9-Euro Ticket for granted, but for many of the respondents, it made things possible that otherwise would not have been - like visiting relatives or taking a trip to the Baltic Sea coast. It also makes some smaller thing possible, like shopping at discount stores on the edge of town that might be less expensive than the supermarket around the corner. And then using the same ticket to pick up your grandchild from daycare. Or just getting on a train in general and going somewhere.
When the 9-Euro Ticket ended in August, significantly fewer passengers purchased a regular monthly pass. Many had apparently hoped that the ticket would just continue.
What Ackermann's research also shows, though, is that fewer people in rural areas were interested in the ticket. Some 42 percent of respondents from "small towns and village areas" say that too many transfers are required to get anywhere. Thirty-seven percent say there aren't enough buses or trains in their area. And 27 percent say the nearest stop is too far away.
The success of the Deutschland-Ticket will depend in part on whether the connections in rural areas are attractive for passengers.Foto: Julius Schrank / DER SPIEGEL
And yet: The Germans were hooked. It was reminiscent of the Interrail ticket, which allowed European youth to travel the continent at an affordable price a couple of decades ago. It was a time when backpacking through Europe could still be done on a budget.
Volker Wissing is also now fully convinced of his idea. "I get asked about this ticket at every international conference," he told members of the German parliament in February. "Everyone says: That's a great idea. Thank you for leading the way, for testing things out with the 9-Euro Ticket."
But everyone had a key question. What now? What did the German government plan to do next?
The Green Party wanted what it described as a climate ticket - something that should be attractive for commuters. Chancellor Scholz's SPD, wanted a social ticket, something that would be cheap. The FDP, for its part, wanted the successor ticket to lead the way to a more digital world. Transport Minister Wissing had made it a condition that the new ticket would have to be issued exclusively digitally. Preferably by app on smartphones or, if necessary, the chip cards that are given to many people with public transportation passes in Germany.
Almost 180 years after the introduction of the first tickets by the Royal Ludwig Rail Company, Germany's first passenger railway in December 1835, paper tickets would now be a thing of the past.
Finally, after all those years, an opportunity had arisen to put an end to the fragmentation of the 60 or so organizations responsible for administering public transportation across Germany. One ticket, one standard and a single fare that would be valid from Westerland on the island of Sylt to Mittenwald in in the Alps.
But revolutions, including those in the mass transit sector, entail a lot of work, at least at first. How, for example, would it be possible for a ticket issued by Hamburg's public transport authority to be checked by its counterpart in Düsseldorf? Because unlike Switzerland, for example, with its "Alliance Swisspass," Germany doesn't have a nationwide system for checking the validity of tickets.
The office of Maike Schaefer, the Green Party transportation minister for the city-state of Bremen, is located on the 13th floor of an administrative high-rise located not far from the city's central station. Schaefer, dressed in dark blue, invites the reporter to sit down at the oval wooden table. She says it's good to show just how much work the implementation of this ticket has entailed.
The city-state of Bremen chaired the conference of state and federal transport ministers until the end of last year, with Schaefer leading the meetings. When she first heard about the 9-Euro Ticket on the radio, she picked up the phone and called Volker Wissing directly, because public transportation in Germany falls under the policy jurisdiction of the federal states and municipalities. A few months have passed since then, time in which Schaefer and her fellow transportation ministers have had to engage in tough negotiations.
Since September 2022, Bremen has been considering how to implement the ticket revolution in working groups and sub-working groups on, for example, "revenue sharing procedures." Fear of fraud has been rife in the industry. Barcodes, they feared, could easily be copied. Illegal online ticketing stores operated from abroad could also become money printing machines.
Maike Schaefer, who holds a Ph.D. in ecotoxicology, says that it became clear during the negotiations that the federal government and the states were expected to share the costs for the ticket. The states, though, were only willing to do so if federal funding was boosted for the expansion of public transport in rural areas. "There's no point in having even the nicest ticket if there's no bus," Schaefer says.
For months, Wissing showed no interest in hearing about the extra costs the ticket would generate. Such costs, he insisted, weren't the responsibility of the federal government. But, Schaefer says, you can't celebrate something as a success and then just leave the costs and the work to the states, the municipalities and the public transportation organizations.
Now, the federal government is contributing to the additional costs, and funding for the states has also been increased by a further billion euros a year starting from 2022. Nevertheless, it still isn't clear how the revenues will be distributed among the transportation companies.
According to the VDV, it is a "totally open question" how revenues from a ticket purchased in Munich by a woman from Mainz in order to use it to travel around Berlin will be calculated. Figuring that out, the association says, will be the headache for the next 12 to 18 months. "The industry needs to realize that everyone shares responsibility for each other's revenue. This changes the mindset," says Nils Zeino-Mahmalat of the VDV, which is coordinating the technical aspects of implementing the Deutschland Ticket.
Ulm Central Station
Platform 3 South
Karl-Dieter Bodack, a former director of German national railway Deutsche Bahn, steps out of the elevator. The lively gentleman of 85 years now lives in the town of Gröbenzell outside of Munich.
Bodack is the ideal person to explain, on a train trip to the Allgäu region in the Alpine foothills of southern Germany, all the things German rail still needs to do for the Deutschland Ticket to be worthy of its name.
Bodack trained as a shop mechanic, studied mechanical engineering and social sciences at university, and also studied design in Ulm. Along the way, he also passed his train driver's exam, making him a Renaissance man in the world of rail.
Bodack worked in various management positions and as an adviser for passenger transport to Deutsche Bahn's management board. He is extremely knowledgeable about railway issues. "The whole network," he says, "is full of defects." "Do you see the steel cables there on the track? Those are for the switches." He says they are still operated mechanically, as they were 100 years ago, from the nearest signal box.
The train trip with Bodack to Allgäu is a journey into the inner workings of Deutche Bahn, and it the view isn't always pretty. When changing trains in the town of Memmingen, he points over to Platform 1, where a Eurocity train running from Zurich to Munich is making a stop. The train is unfortunately shorter than it is in Switzerland because the platform in Memmingen isn't long enough for the entire train - a problem that could easily have been addressed when the stretch was recently upgraded.
But it weren't.
So now the Swiss have to uncouple a few cars at the Sankt Margrethen station across the border and reconnect them on the return trip. He has calculated the time it takes: Five minutes. For Switzerland, that's a lot of time.
Switzerland is the model for rail travel. Last year, more than 90 percent of trains in the country were on time, even though three minutes is considered a delay in Switzerland. Many trains leave every 30 minutes and the country also offers a flat-rate monthly ticket for public transportation. Compared to Germany, the residents of Switzerland make more than twice as many trips by train on average.
Bodack points out that the line used by the Eurocity from Zurich to Munich has only a single track. Yet despite that significant shortcoming, money was recently spent on electrifying it.
The money for the upgrade could have been used for a different, double-track route. That route runs through the city of Kempten and is a little longer, making it slightly more expensive to electrify it, which Deutsche Bahn shied away from. So now, trains on the single-track line must use sidings to pass each other.
Why, though, is such a thing necessary. Why does German Rail lack infrastructure?
To answer such questions, Bodack goes back to the 1990s, back when plans were afoot to float the government-owned railway on the stock market. Nothing ultimately came of the IPO, but the reforms introduced to prepare for it massively transformed the company, and those changes are still affecting operations today. In a process starting in the late 1990s under former CEO Hartmut Mehdorn, Deutsche Bahn become a conglomerate of rail subsidiaries and other organizations for long-distance transport, regional transport, cargo, construction, maintenance, energy, network services and much more.
You can buy many things at this ticket machine, but not the Deutschland Ticket.Foto: Julius Schrank / DER SPIEGEL
DB Netz AG is responsible for tracks, switches, overhead lines and platforms. It is a stock corporation, so the management board is required to be profit-oriented. The consequences are apparent on the Ulm-Lindau line and elsewhere. A longer train platform in Memmingen would cost more to clean and maintain. More switches, rails and overhead lines would also translate to more outlays.
According to the coalition agreement establishing the current German government, which is the 100-percent owner of the national railway, DB Netz's operations are now to be focused on the "common good" rather than just profits. Whether that will happen remains an open question.
Bodack has his doubts. As he does about whether the Deutschland Ticket will actually prove to be a winner. The problem, he says, is that German rail invested billions of euros to become a global logistics company active in more than 130 countries instead focusing on transporting people and goods in Germany. Furthermore, the number of crossings and switches have been cut in half since 1994, he points out, and the amount of track slashed from 40,000 to 33,000 kilometers. And much of the infrastructure, he adds, hasn't been properly maintained.
Kating is far from being a hub. It's more of a dot on the map on Germany's North Sea coast. The station, such as it is, does have a ticket machine, a small shelter on the platform and a loudspeaker. According to the timetable, the next train should arrive at Kating station at 1:53 p.m., the regional train from Sankt Peter-Ording via Witzwort to Husum.
There's not really much reason to stop in Kating. Passengers wanting to get off here have to press a stop button on the train to make a halt.
At 1:52 p.m., a black VW Passat pulls up and parks in the mud by the meadow. The engine stops and then the only sound is the wind, which is sometimes louder and sometimes quieter.
Probably Germany's loneliest railway station: the on-demand stop Kating in North Friesland.Foto: Julius Schrank / DER SPIEGEL
At 1:53 p.m., the whistle of the train can be heard and it comes to a stop and two school-age children get out. One is Nico Mina, 16, whose mother is waiting in her black Passat as she does every afternoon. She has to, because the bus, line 172, only runs twice a day, at 7:33 a.m. and at 12:38 p.m., through Kotzembüll to Tönning and then to her son's school at Ostertor. But when the children come back from school, there's no bus waiting for them - just mom.
But at least the train was on time.
At Tönning, the next larger station located not far from Kating, railway employee Frank Behr says that not a single person has asked him about the new ticket.
He peers through a pane of glass at the rails in front of him. He says there's a spur block in his dispatcher's room that can be used for pre-blocking and re-blocking, for single-track spur lines. Behr talks about how he changes the switches and signals by hand and about how he enters the trains to Sankt Peter-Ording in a book with a pen. He lowers the train barrier himself, also by hand, puts on his orange warning jacket for every new train and hangs the red and white chain in front of the footpath to Platform 2.
Between trains, he sells tickets and runs the travel center or distributes flyers with excursion destinations nearby to tourists.
Behr believes that for most people, the new ticket is more of riddle than a revolution: Am I saving anything? Money, or time? He says he is planning on buying the 49-euro Deutschland Ticket for his 16-year-old daughter. The student ticket currently costs 76.50 euros a month, so the new ticket will be considerably cheaper.
The Deutschland Ticket is an experiment.Foto: Julius Schrank / DER SPIEGEL
The Deutschland-Ticket has been available for sale since April 3. Deutsche Bahn reported that 250,000 of the monthly passes were sold in the first three days. And in at least two rural counties in the state of Thuringia, the ticket is in fact being sold on paper.
It turns out that there are still some growing pains when it comes to a unified ticket for the whole country.
Indeed, there are a number of special rules in different states. Hamburg offers schoolchildren the 49-euro-ticket for 19 euros, Bavaria charges its university students 29 euros, and Hesse makes it available to people with low incomes in the state for 31 euros. Munich allows passengers to bring a dog on board with them, and Stuttgart offers an upgrade called the TicketPlus that, makes it transferable to others. The whole thing is a bit like a flea market, and it still hasn't been determined how proceeds will be distributed.
The Deutschland Ticket alone won't renew a single ailing switch, modernize a signal box or bring more forms of public transportation to rural places like Kating. In an ideal world, it would have been better to improve the infrastructure first and then introduce a new ticket.
What the Deutschland Ticket does mean, however, is that regional travel is no longer just a matter for the German states and the companies that operate the transportation companies there. By pushing for the introduction of the ticket, the German federal government has taken on the problem of public transport as a task for society as a whole.
But it remains to be seen what that will mean. It's a little like taking the train in Germany in general: You get on the train and are never quite sure when you will get off or where.
But at least things are moving.