The problem with “free” public transport

When you’re celebrating Christmas, it means a lot when your children buy you a present from their first pay cheque. When however they’re buying you gifts with money you gave them, it’s adorable at best.

That is, in essence, what the new Luxembourg government is doing on public transport. It takes the money of taxpayers, and then stops asking people to buy a ticket when they get on a bus or tram. Whoever thinks that public transport is “free”, after paying income tax, property tax, taxes on interests, VAT, excise tax, or road tax, needs a course in fiscal responsibility.

The public transport cost is a staggering €1 billion, with only €30 million (3%) covered by tickets. Despite the massive cost, the north of the country is not well-connected at all, and it is continuously under fire for passenger security deficits. Outside of a few close-by Germany connections, the CFL doesn’t even run international trains, and operates no long-distance bus service.

As a result, the only practical international connection is to Paris with SNCF. So what are Luxembourg’s taxpayers contributing towards? A tram running on snail-speed? Making the Grand Duchy’s public transport “free” (accurately: free of charge), won’t make any of these problems disappear.

Telling young people that public transport is “free” is particularly problematic. Youth unions and student organisations have been requesting “free” public transport for a couple of years, and are now receiving the clear indication that not only did they receive what they asked for, but also that other people are going to pay for it. What better way to raise a generation of people who believe that your problems need to be solved by someone else. In a century plagued by European governments which clearly overspend, it isn’t wise to add yet another spending burden on top of it.

But what do politicians really care after all? It is easy to offer expensive public transport to people who already paid for it themselves, and then reap the benefits and credit from your voters and the international news media. You could call it “Politics 101”.

In fact, the government should have taken the exact opposite approach: public transport should be a choice that people make for practical reasons. If consumers don’t choose it, then they shouldn’t be required to pay for it. Transport should be based on user fees, not on payments from the general population. Because if not, where’s the fairness? Why should people who live up north, and don’t benefit from good transport connections, be required to contribute just as much as those who get a multitude of good transport alternatives? And no, it isn’t an argument to claim that it is all about the “greater good”. For decades, Luxembourgish public transport has been highly subsidised in the name of the greater good, with no improvement of the overall traffic situation in sight.

Yes, useful investments could be made, such as a metro system, but the political will does not seem to be there to make the necessary political steps. In the absence of those steps, the Grand Duchy should seek to minimise the influence of the state in public transport, as it is only a decelerating factor.

“Free” public transport may get you favourable headlines in the international press, but it doesn’t solve any of the current problems. As always, it’s the Germans who have the best words to express how you could feel about this measure. “Augenwischerei”, or “eye-washing”, really describes it best.


This article was first published by the Luxembourg Times.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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