On a train to everywhere – Germany’s €9 ticket and its surprising consequences

Usain Bolt doing his typical pose with Jamaican flag on his shoulder

7 August 2022

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The best things in life are free, so the saying goes. I disagree. The best thing in life right now costs €9, specifically the monthly ticket that allows you to travel the entire regional train network in your city in Germany. They introduced this in June to offset exploding gas prices.

The reaction was swift and dramatic. In the first two days, people bought over 9 million tickets — the modern version of a stampede — causing the rail service’s system to buckle from the onslaught. The first month saw a 42% jump in passenger train traffic over the previous year. It also decluttered Germany’s crowded city streets; the number of traffic jams went down.

My only complaint about this ticket is that they introduced it in June, while I was on vacation. I missed out on a whole month of freewheeling throughout Bavaria. But I made up for lost time by meeting my friend Michelle for lunch in Augsburg, a 30-minute train ride from Munich. When her husband asked her why we were going there, she said well, why not? We’ve got the €9 ticket!

Once you have this magic ticket, you can tell yourself that everything after that is free! It’s like the golden ticket in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” except everybody gets to have one, and your chance of suffering a tragic yet hilarious fate remains minimal. It’s not a tour through Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory full of oompa loompas, but a tour through Bavaria, full of oompah-oompahs.

Oompah-oompah bands are now within easy reach with a €9 ticket

Passengers may be delighted, but there is one group of people who are worse off because of the €9 ticket: the ticket inspectors. They used to have the devious pleasure of boarding a random train, puffing up their chest and flashing their official ID while asking people to show their tickets.

This simple action strikes terror in the hearts of those who have not bought and stamped a ticket (and those who have but also have a nervous disposition. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything). If you happen to forget to buy or stamp your ticket, the mere sight of an inspector getting on the train is probably the closest you’ll ever come to feeling like a mafioso enjoying a plate of pasta when one of Don Corleone’s henchmen enters and starts walking towards your table with a gun in his hand.

I always imagine the little surge of sadistic pleasure these inspectors must get when they catch someone who hasn’t paid. After all, what else would they have to report at the end of the day? I accorded a ticket inspector a minor thrill: I did have a €9 ticket but forgot to sign it. Her eyes lit up when she saw this and she broke into a broad grin while gently reprimanding me – but she didn’t give me a fine. I’m sure I made her day with this minor transgression.

Closer reflection reveals the insight that the €9 ticket is the perfect trademark for the current German government whose moniker is “the traffic light coalition.” This derives from the colors of its three member parties: red for the SPD, the Social Democrats; yellow for the FDP, the Free Democrats; and green stands for – well, I’ll let you figure that one out.

Maybe some back-office strategist in Berlin came up with the €9 ticket as a way for the coalition to live the “traffic light brand.” What better way to do this than to improve the traffic situation by reducing the price of train travel?

But it does make one wonder: what kind of policy would the government have enacted if a different coalition were in power, such as the so-called Jamaica coalition, named after the colors of the Jamaican flag? This coalition would have consisted of the FDP, Greens and CDU, the Christian Democrats, represented by the color black.

Instead of a cheap train ticket, perhaps they would have promoted open-air reggae festivals or joint-rolling parties. Or maybe 10k runs in honor of Usain Bolt. Or perhaps pirates, in honor of the Caribbean rum runners of yesteryear. That would create quite a stir for no-nonsense German politicians to have a pirate as their leitmotif.

But that wouldn’t work, as people would confuse it with the Piratenpartei, the Pirate Party. Yes, this really exists and it represents a tiny minority but balances out the stuffy majority of German lawmakers quite nicely. Despite its radical name, the party chose a humdrum stylized flag as its logo. By doing so, they missed a golden opportunity to have a logo with a skull and crossbones or better yet a pirate, complete with tricorn hat and eye patch. After all, it worked well for Madonna.

People are now clamoring for the €9 ticket to be extended beyond August. We knew that was coming. It’s like when you let your kids have chocolate cake for breakfast for a week and then expect them to go back to eating Weetabix. Are you kidding, mom? Eat shredded cardboard – first thing in the morning? I don’t think so.

In the same manner, Germans quickly became accustomed to paying virtually nothing for their train tickets. But 20% of these new passengers had never bought a train ticket before, so maybe there will be a positive long-term impact and some dyed-in-the-wool car fans will now begin using public transport.

I for one am lining up trips for the rest of August to make full use of my ticket. The traffic light coalition government may not be as sexy as one with a pirate theme, but a ticket has more lasting value than a rum-drenched block party. Besides, we are in Germany after all, where things are clean and orderly and reggae revelers would be decidedly off-brand.

Brenda Arnold

Title photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência BrasilCC BY 3.0 BR

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