IT has been just over a year since ScotRail was taken into public control.

In that time various countries across Europe have slashed (or completely eliminated) ticket fares in a bid to encourage more people onto public transport.

Last month, the German parliament green-lit a €49-a-month ticket that allows passengers to travel on all regional rail, metro, tram and bus services across the entire country.

This “Deutschland ticket” follows on from the success of a similar €9 ticket rolled out during June, July and August last year, of which around 52 million were sold. It’s thought the scheme saved around 1.8 million tons of CO2.

In response to the cost-of-living crisis, Spain, too, took action by halving the cost of public transport tickets. It also made a huge number of short and medium distance train services completely free.

In Luxembourg, all public transport has been free for residents and tourists alike since 2020.

So, why aren’t we seeing similar schemes in Scotland?

“Little practical on the ground” as a result of nationalisation

“What you’re trying to achieve with nationalisation is culture change,” said Derek Halden, secretary of the Scottish Transport Studies Group.

“Clearly, it hasn’t been a good time for that with the number of strikes we’ve been seeing and the rise in inflation.

“The big things we’d want to see, such as a better, more socially designed fare regime, haven’t happened.

“We’ve got the ongoing Fair Fares Review but there’s been little practical on the ground as yet.”

The Scottish Government’s Fair Fares Review, a commitment of the Bute House Agreement, is expected to be published in the first half of 2023. .

It seeks to “ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to public transport fares” by looking at the range of discounts and concessionary schemes currently available to travellers across all modes of public transport.

Domestic transport emissions from private vehicles are now the largest source of greenhouse gas pollution in Scotland.

Yet, according to a report published by Transform Scotland, there “has been virtually no progress in reducing transport emissions in three decades.”

Meanwhile, the increasing cost of maintaining public transport has led to higher fares and fewer passengers.

The addition of under-22s to the free bus pass scheme has gone some way to saving families money – with evidence from the Child Poverty Action Group showing that the scheme can save a total of £3000 in the lifetime cost of a child in Scotland.

Yet while around 2 million people are eligible for free bus travel in Scotland – the most generous scheme in the UK – for those not covered bus fares have continued to rise (around 6% in real terms over the past five years).

Do free transport schemes impact car use?

But making trains and buses more affordable won’t necessarily be a silver bullet in reducing car use.

“The key point when it comes to the European examples is that while low or free fares do grow public transport use, they don't necessarily make any impact on car usage,” said Halden.

“If you look at Spain or Germany, they had huge increases in rail travel as a result of reducing the cost of fares or getting rid of them completely. But they didn’t get any reduction in car travel.”

A study of the greater Munich area during the €9 ticket scheme last summer found that while 35% of subjects used the train and bus more often, only 3% used their own vehicles less frequently.

Yet while the Scottish Government’s National Transport Strategy aims to create a system where walking, cycling and public transport “take precedence ahead of private car use”, Halden stated that the policies to make that a reality just aren’t being proposed yet.

He said: “If you want to reduce private car use you need a completely different set of initiatives to those that encourage people onto public transport.

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“It’s about people choosing to walk to the shops rather than drive their car to a superstore, for example.  The retail, personal business and leisure trips of up to about 20 miles are where the big hits on reduction in car mileage can practically be achieved

“But we don’t actually have any practical initiatives successfully targeting these changes yet.

“What we need to be focused on is getting the policy framework in place to actually deliver net zero transport and we’re barely off ground zero there.

“We’ve got targets and commitments but we’re getting almost nothing practical to achieve them.”

A sustainable future for car use and public transport In Glasgow, funding has been secured to draw up a proposal for a free public transport pilot scheme.

Councillor Christy Mearns, a representative of the Scottish Greens in Glasgow City Council, said that removing fares across the entirety of the transport network has benefits for those on both high and low incomes.

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“The principle of universality is key so that we can test not just the social benefits of making public transport more affordable, but also encourage those on higher incomes to take up public transport more,” she said.

“We know we’re not going to reach our net-zero goals or lower the number of kilometres people are travelling in their cars unless we address them simultaneously.

“That’s why Green Councillors in Glasgow are progressing a free public transport pilot, to test the social and environmental benefits of universal free access.

“This is something we need to be looking at, at least until wider options can be explored, such as bus franchising and municipal ownership, which could finally unlock the sustainable, world-class public transport system which our citizens deserve, and which other cities currently benefit from.”

It is thought that the scheme will initially cover a small geographic area and all apply to all modes of transport within it.

Campaigns such as Replace the M8 may also point towards the kind of radical action needed if Scotland is to reduce carbon emissions to the level the government has promised.

What’s happening now?

Kevin Stewart, the Scottish Government’s Transport Minister, said that the removal of peak fares on ScotRail services and investment in active travel mean that Scotland is moving in the right direction.

“We know that to reduce car use, public transport has to be affordable and accessible,” he said.

“We have committed as part of the Fair Fares Review to take forward a pilot to evaluate the removal of ScotRail peak fares commencing this financial year.

“Work on the precise methodology and design is being finalised, with Transport Scotland officials working closely with Scottish Rail Holdings (SRH) and ScotRail to derive maximum benefit for this scheme. Further details of the pilot will be announced in due course.

“Scotland also has the most generous concessionary scheme in the UK, investing £300 million annually to provide free bus travel for over 2 million people. More than a third of the population, over 2.3 million people, including everyone under 22 and over 60, and disabled people and companions, can benefit from free bus travel.

“The range of concessionary travel schemes in Scotland does not exist in any other part of the U.K.

“We are driving forward bold action to decarbonise Scotland’s transport sector and funding for active travel is at record levels. We have pledged at least £320m a year by 2024-25 on active travel infrastructure, access to bikes and behaviour change – that’s 10% of the total transport budget (up from £39 million in 2017/18).”

Reducing emissions from private vehicle use is an enormous global challenge and different countries are going to tackle it in their own way.

If the movement in Europe is anything to go by, however, cheaper (and even free) public transport could play a key part in Scotland’s future.