Can free train tickets stop the EU from eating itself alive?

The Cize–Bolozon viaduct is a prime example of why trains are too pretty to be wasted on the young. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It’s that feeling. When you’ve broken up with someone, and it was all a bit messy and unpleasant, and then two weeks later they post an absolutely killer Instagram and you’re left thinking: “Why on earth did I do that?”

That’s what the EU’s trying to do to us now, the saucy minx.

In October last year, a wiry and slightly balding Member of the European Parliament put forward a rather daring proposal. Manfred Weber, a Bavarian MEP for the CSU party, thought all European 18-year-olds should get a free Interrail pass for their birthday.

From Bavaria, With Love

“The mobility of young people is essential in promoting a sense of belonging to Europe, enhancing social cohesion, and ensuring a competitive European economy,” he said.

The solution to all political problems – more trains! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Populism and the spread of misinformation is one of the biggest threats Europe is currently facing. In this context young generations have a key role to play as a counterweight, and the European Union have to give them the mean to discover [sic] who their neighbours are and what the opportunities another member state can bring to any single European.”

If two-thirds of all eligible Europeans took up the offer, the costs would tot up to around about €1.5bn a year, according to German news service Tagesschau. But as Weber said; “The European Union has heavily invested into railway infrastructure mounting up to 30 per cent of the investments in certain member states, and the rail-oriented funds will grow from €23.4bn to €29.9bn for 2014-20.” His logic? That adding on a bit of cash here and there won’t actually make that much difference.

The idea is that giving all 18-year-olds the chance to gallivant around Europe for free will make them feel nice warm cuddly feelings about the EU, explore and learn to love other countries, customs, and nationalities. That in turn should keep them away from the kind of Eurosceptic populism that cleft Britain from the EU, and is rocking the boat in France, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Greece, Slovakia, Sweden, Denmark, and – oh yeah. Everywhere.

Why have populism when you can have two parallel Deutsche Bahn ICEs? Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Even ignoring the fact that €1.5bn a year is a hell of a lot of money, the scheme falls into a few potholes. One is that two member states – Cyprus and Malta – have absolutely no railways. Another is that the Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – aren’t part of the Interrail scheme.

Weber says the programme could “cover the cost for other means of transport to join the next member state connected, such as bus or ferry”, though the details of what that might mean are sketchy.

Bulc-buying train tickets

But Europe’s commissioner for transport, Violeta Bulc, says it’s an “excellent idea”. She’s running a study into the feasibility of the programme – both in terms of finance and administration – and has said that other similar options may be explored, like running a lottery for young people to enter in which a significant number would win tickets.

I don't think Interrail passes cover RER trains, but look! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The company that actually runs Interrail, Dutch firm Eurail.com BV, welcomed the idea with a cautious kind of optimism. They said it “would be a big undertaking to get over five million 18-year-olds to travel with Interrail for free every year”. Though for them, of course, it could be the cash cow of their hopes and dreams.

Practicalities aside – is there actually any point doing it?

If it ain’t Brexit, don’t fix it

There’s a limit to how useful Brexit can be as an example in this instance – we were never fully integrated into the European project in the same way as other member states, and our geographic separation combined with our strange mythology of otherness no doubt provided the bulk of the cultural context in which leaving the bloc seemed plausible.

But if Europe is trying to learn lessons as to how to hold itself together, it will no doubt be to our separatist example that heads turn.

This article was mostly an excuse for soft-core Euro train porn. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Breaking down the result of June’s referendum by age group presents an obvious problem. Three-quarters of 18-24 year-olds voted to Remain in the EU, sliding to 56 per cent among 25-49-year-olds. Past the age of 50, Leave slid into the majority; only 44 per cent of 50-64-year-olds voted to stay in the bloc, and among folk above retiring age that proportion slithered down to 39 per cent.

And while it’s hard to know how much of that euroscepticism is ingrained in each of those generation by predisposition and political experience, as oppposed to how much of it is simply the result of growing older, what seems clear is that the young aren’t necessarily the problem.

Bouncy sprightly young things are great news for Europe; they already hop around on trains and planes and Erasmus programmes exploring the continent in the hundreds of thousands, have friendships across borders, and (at least on the continent) think of themselves as European as much as nationally bound.

Switzerland is technically not in the EU but that's not the point. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The problem is the old codgers.

The brief interlude, of course, is that social class and economic welfare was almost as important to determining how Brits voted in the 2016 referendum – which is where a scheme like the universal Interrail pass for 18-year-olds could come in handy.

Whereas sproglets with the cash to splash on a month of TGV-hopping were more likely to vote Remain, young people from poorer backgrounds and fewer opportunities to embark on such adventures were more likely to want to leave.

So in theory, doling out the chance to travel to everyone could encourage those at the bottom end of the socioeconomic travel to get out and about in Europe, increase their ‘European-ness’ and foster international cultural closeness.


But splashing the cash on the young is still unlikely to be the long-term political game-changer optimistic MEPs yearn for. A free trip around Europe in, say, 2020 may not make much difference to support for the union in 2062 when that person reaches 60.

So why not flip it around? Instead of wasting money on mindless younglings who already love the project, why not offer all 60-year-olds a free pass for their birthday? Or attach the right to claim an Interrail pass to universal European retirement packages?

Sure, the baby boomers have benefitted from all the world’s riches whilst screwing almost everything up, but if it takes a few billion euros and some train tickets to shut them up and stop them ruining anything else – why not? 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.