Free rides: what’s the point? Part 2

Economist Brian Field argues that extending the tram to the airport at extortionate cost is "nonsense".  Matic Zorman

Economist Brian Field argues that extending the tram to the airport at extortionate cost is "nonsense".  Matic Zorman

In light of the upcoming free public transport scheme, what else needs to be done to solve the country’s current mobility crisis? And is the move merely a nation branding gimmick? 

In part one, Delano delved into what led to the free public transport scheme, to be rolled out on 1 March 2020, and explained how it works and the expected impact. Here’s part two of our cover story. 

What else needs to be done?

There is no doubt that getting more people to change habits in Luxembourg, especially for their morning commute, will require a vast improvement in the quality of service on the public transport systems. The immediate reaction from some sceptics to the no-charge announcement was that investment would suffer as some revenue losses from ticket sales took bite. But mobility minister François Bausch is insistent that investment will remain high. “The offer to provide public transport for free was just the icing on the cake,” he says. He cites Switzerland as an example of how prices don’t really make a difference. “Tickets [on Swiss public transport] are expensive, but the quality is enormously high. It is a country where public transport has a really good reputation. And it is proof that quality service is the key to getting people to use public transport.”

"I talk about the free public transport scheme for two minutes, and then spend 25 minutes talking about our strategy. And people are impressed," says Minister Bausch Photo: Mike Zenari/achives 

The CFL, for instance, has enjoyed state investment worth some €4 billion since 2007. It is undertaking a series of measures to build a more robust network by the end of 2024. This includes a second track for the connection between Luxembourg and Bettembourg, and an extension of the central station that incorporates two new platforms and four additional tracks. The new dual track over the expanded viaduct at Pulvermühl to Sandweiler and Contern has already had an impact, claims Alessandra Nonnweiler, CFL communications manager. “When all that is finished, each route will have its own dedicated track and platform at the station in Luxembourg,” Nonnweiler explains. “This will reduce congestion caused when a route experiences a delay that currently affects other train services.”

CFL is also investing in €400 million worth of new rolling stock, the first of which is due to take up service at the start of 2022. By 2024, a total of 34 new trains will be in service, increasing passenger capacity by 11,600 to a total of 38,800 seats, representing a 46% rise since 2018. The ultimate aim is to improve punctuality, with a publicly stated target of 92% of trains departing and arriving on time.

Bausch’s plans also incorporate what he calls a more “multimodular” transport network, one that combines train, bus and tram services, but also takes into account those people who have to use their car as well as cyclists and pedestrians. “Mobility problems throughout Europe are the result of a spending the last 40 or 50 years focusing on one mode of transport, the private car,” he says. Laure Simon, board member of the Mouvement Écologique, says more direct connections, avoiding the capital city, are needed between towns.

But she also says that constant population growth and a steady increase in the number of cross-border commuters means Luxembourg always seems to be playing catch-up. “Now building a tram, it should have been in place already 20 years ago. More train lines and everything. And we keep running behind. We can never see an end if we keep going like this.” Simon argues that what is really required to ease congestion as population grows is better land planning. Rising house prices have meant that people tend to live in places where land is cheap. “They have a nice house… and a garden, and they live somewhere where they have no buses, no trains… and then afterwards, they complain that they don’t have a bus route to get back home.” Politicians should be planning in such a way that population distribution across the country can be better controlled. 

"Free public transport will not lead to better air quality," argues Laure Simon, board member, Mouvement Écologique Photo: Laure Simon

Economist Brian Field, for one, is not at all convinced of the viability of the tram. “The reality is that cities, that is, the cities that couldn’t afford to build metros, are suddenly building trams because trams were becoming fashionable again. And Luxembourg thought it’s about time that it had one.” He argues that extending the tram, at extortionate cost, to the airport--when there were already perfectly good bus services at Findel--is “nonsense”.

And Field is among those who suggest that encouraging public transport use must be accompanied by efforts to discourage private car use. “Draconian policies [are required] to discourage the use of private transport,” Field says. “Extraordinarily expensive car parking, no car parks in any public administration buildings in the central area because people can get to and from work on buses for nothing, stopping people from the so-called school run.”

The nation branding effect

While Field calls free public transport a “complete piss-all” as a policy in its own right and “nothing but a stunt”, Simon is dismissive of the whole nation branding project. “I think it’s so ridiculous. We are not as big as some cities outside of Luxembourg, and then we say a whole nation,” she says. But there is no doubt that January’s announcement did make an impact around the world, and that Luxembourg was seen in a positive light in headlines from Germany to the United States. Bausch is only too happy to admit that the policy announcement was something of a nation branding coup. “It has an image narrative, which was clear from the reaction of the international media.” But he says he can take advantage of those attention-grabbing headlines to explain that in fact Luxembourg is rethinking its entire mobility module. “When I’m abroad, I talk about the free public transport scheme for two minutes, and then spend 25 minutes talking about our strategy. And people are impressed.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Delano magazine