Germany plans to trial free public transport in cities suffering from air pollution

Jon Stone
Many German cities already have extensive and affordable S-Bahn networks: REUTERS

The German government is planning to trial free public transport in cities suffering from air pollution, as Angela Merkel’s administration scrambles to meet EU pollution rules and avoid fines.

Five cities – Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutlingen and Mannheim – will benefit from the trial “at the end of the year at the latest” according to proposals drawn up by the Federal government.

German and British ministers were among those countries’ summoned to Brussels last month to explain to the European Commission why they had continued to break EU rules on toxic air pollution and what they would do to fix the problem.

“We are considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars,” a letter sent to the European Commission by German ministers says.

“Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany,” the ministers added.

The letter also contains other proposals to cut pollution support for car-sharing schemes, low emissions zones in cities, and restrictions on the emissions that fleet vehicles such as buses can produce.

Public transport is already significantly more affordable in Germany than the UK. The state-run railway operator Deutsche Bahn sells an annual season ticket covering all trains running throughout the whole of Germany, the BahnCard 100, for €4,270 (£3,802) – lower than the price of many single line season tickets in Britain.

If the countries, which also include Spain, France and Italy, fail to come up with proposals they face infringement procedures from the European Commission, which could result in hefty fines for breaking EU law.

The British government, which was also summoned to the air pollution summit and asked to provide better answers, has not made public its new plans.

Transport minister Jo Johnson even announced this week that diesel trains would not be phased out on the UK’s rail network for decades, until 2040, following the cancellation of several rail electrification programmes by his boss Chris Grayling.

Mr Grayling also this week blocked Transport for London and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan from raising their penalty charge on motorists breaking road rules – including violating the capital’s low emissions zone – claiming a rise from £65 to £80 for people who pay on time would be “excessive”.

A spokesperson for the European Commission confirmed that it had received new proposals from all the infringing countries and that it was reviewing in each case whether infringement procedures should continue.

The Commission says life-threatening pollution affects 130 cities in the EU and causes around 400,000 early deaths. 40,000 early deaths are caused by pollution in the UK, 9,500 of which are in London. In the capital, road transport is responsible for 45 per cent of the toxic nitrogen oxide emissions that do the most damage.

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