Free travel nationwide: today Luxembourg, tomorrow the UK?

“Mobility is one of the greatest gifts you can give to people,” says Nicky Gardner, as the rain streaks down the windows of a busy northbound train from Luxembourg City.

She and Susanne Kries – authors of Europe by Rail: the Definitive Guide – are, for once, travelling without tickets. Deliberately. 

They arrived in the Grand Duchy for what, in transport terms, is an historic weekend. Luxembourg has just become the first country in the world to abolish rail, bus and tram fares nationwide.

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Francois Bausch, the visionary transport minister who brought in the free mobility scheme, has two key advantages. Luxembourg is both concise (the size of Oxfordshire) and wealthy. While many locals are comfortably unfamiliar with buses and trains, their taxes can, he hopes, help deal with overloads on the roads.

Britain is much bigger and not so well off. But the UK suffers equally from excessive car use that damages the environment, locally and globally.

Ms Gardner is convinced other nations will follow Luxembourg on the low-carbon tramway to climate-change heaven. “We’ve already seen a number of countries pick [free transport] up at a city level,” she says.

“At a nationwide level it’s going to take a little bit of time. But I think it will come.

“We have the environmental movement to thank for that, because they’ve made all of us aware of how it’s not just good for us, but it’s good for our planet if we travel by public transport.”

Other nations will watch closely to see how Luxembourg fares without fares. The policy is designed to encourage a modal shift from road to rail and bus – in other words, to lure motorists out of their cars. 

Yet it could trigger unintended consequences such as flooding Luxembourg’s border villages with haphazardly parked cars as crafty neighbours from Belgium, France and Germany exploit the free onward transport.

The UK’s Department for Transport is unlikely to pay much attention, though. In the time it takes a Pret barista to make a cafe latte on the ground floor of the DfT HQ, a civil servant could work through just some of the negatives.

The already overloaded 7.57am from Woking to London Waterloo would become unbearable without the high fares that suppress even denser crowds.

The property market in random towns such as Taunton, Oxenholme and Skipton would be distorted as prospective housebuyers cashed in on vanishing season tickets to Bristol, Manchester and Leeds respectively.

And, if price is not a factor, how exactly will the Friday night berths on the Caledonian Sleeper from London to the Scottish capital during the Edinburgh Festival be allocated?

Add the small matter of replacing the £15bn in fares currently paid each year by rail, bus and tram passengers, and it is clear that “no-pay UK” does not correlate with current public transport in Britain.

Yet fareless travel is a reality in many UK contexts. Buses and Tubes are free in the vicinity of Heathrow airport, in a bid to cut car use; in Glasgow and Manchester, rail travellers connecting between the two main stations can take free buses; and no one lucky enough to reach 60 in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales or London (but 65 in the rest of England) need ever pay a local bus fare again.

Could, or should, an enlightened city or county make the logical leap to fare-free travel for all within its boundaries?

Brighton and Bristol are the obvious candidates: relatively wealthy cities with terrible traffic and strong green credentials.

Yet for many travellers, price is not the problem, says Martin Dean, the managing director of bus development at the Go-Ahead Group.

“There’s no point giving people free transport if they then get stuck in a traffic jam,” he says. “That will make them very, very frustrated. 

“A fare to get into the town centre is often less than the price of a cup of coffee. So it’s not that they’re unaffordable. Getting rid of congestion is the biggest issue.”

He also cautions about the changing priorities of politicians.

“If all of the income for a public transport operation comes from the government, that’s OK while the government is interested. But if the government has another priority, or runs out of money, then where’s the money going to come from?”

Back on the 1.15pm from Luxembourg City, as the guard walks past without asking for tickets, Nicky Gardner is more optimistic.

“To give an entire country free transport is revolutionary. Apart from encouraging commuters to shift from their cars, it will slowly transform the attitudes of an entire population towards public transport.”

But for now, British commuters should get their tickets ready for inspection.

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