Is There Such Thing as a Free Train?

This may be counter-intuitive, but did you realize that instituting limited periods during which all passengers can ride on a train system for free is a measure that can actually pay for itself, and even turn a profit, from the increased numbers of paying passengers who will be attracted to ride the trains during the free period and beyond?

At least there is the strong suggestion that this is true in Denmark. In January train travel was made free for trains running in the region of Svendborg, located on the south part of the big Danish island of Fyn – the one lying between the Jutland mainland to the west and the island of Sjaelland (where Copenhagen is located) to the east. A subsequent study undertaken together by the Danish traffic ministry and the Danish State Railways (DSB) – and reported at length by journalist Rasmus Lindboe in the Danish opinion newspaper Information (Analysis: The State Can Make a Profit on Free Trains) – shows that ridership increased by 25% as a result of this initiative, even after January was over. What’s more, one third of the 150,000 new riders attracted to the trains would have ordinarily gotten where they needed to go using their cars. The DSB gained back the money it originally lost by not charging fares within three months from the resulting increased ridership.


Now, Svendborg is by no means Copenhagen, much less (say) New York City or even Amsterdam. But this report rings true, at least for the Danes who, with their flat, small country, their super-high gas prices (most of that, of course, due to taxation), and their “green” mentality are known for transportation experimentation. As another example, in Copenhagen you’ll find free bicycles locked up at racks on sidewalks all over the city. You insert a 20 kroner coin (about €2,70) to unlock it (like you do a grocery-cart, so the coin you gain back when you lock it up again at your destination). All the bikes have distinctive color-schemes (usually involving advertisement – another source of income to fund this project) and solid rather than spoked wheels, to further differentiate them from normal bicycles so that anyone inclined to steal one would have great difficulty in hiding what he did. From my occasional visits up there, this system seems to work – I’ve even used it once myself. In contrast, the only residue from a similar scheme dreamed up by the city of Amsterdam, the “white bicycles,” are the stations around town where these bicycles are supposed to be available and similarly locked-up – but in reality they all were stolen long ago.

Cue “Ozymandias.” And also ask: “What moves people to cooperate with such a plan up in Denmark, and abuse it utterly in Amsterdam? But we’re not going to get into this issue here beyond the following sociological supposition by yours truly, namely that it’s a function of a society’s or a city’s homogeneity. That has been rather low in Amsterdam since the 1970s – lots of immigrants in the city – but rather high in Copenhagen, until recently.

The Svendborg experiment would seem to have been a marked, if unexpected success. And it is predictably arousing considerable interest among politicians in Denmark’s unicameral legislature, the Folketing, for example among legislators from the Social Democratic Party (in opposition), but also among the Danish People’s Party, which is not in the government but whose support enables the governing coalition to survive. As Peter Skaarup commented (deputy chairman of the People’s Party, and also member of the Folketing’s traffic committee), “Yes, this sounds very interesting. If the DSB sees no obstacles, we would have no problem with further attempts at this type of initiative.”


The obstacle, though, is the government, which remains unwilling to allocate more money to pursue such initiatives despite the Svendborg results, as Politiken reports (No Money for Free Trains After Success). According to Traffic Minister Flemming Hansen, of the Conservative Party, “There’s no such thing as a free train. The question is who is supposed to pay for the fuel, drivers’ salaries, and the coaches. No extra money will come for these type of experiments from the political side.” The DSB routinely gets many billions (of Danish Kroner – they are roughly six to the dollar) each year, so if it wants to, says Hansen, it can use some of that money. Over in the Information article he also raises the point that it’s still unknown just how long this supposed “drawing-customers-to-the-train” effect will actually last, since after all the Svendborg experiment only dates from last January.

Could they have a clearer idea by November, 2005? That’s when nationwide elections are due to be held next. That’s the consolation for Martin Lidegaard, traffic spokesman for the Radical Left Party: “[The Svendborg experience] also gives perspectives for another government, as the analysis shows that this is an idea with great potential.”

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