Luxembourg’s free public transport sounds great. It isn’t

Trams, though. Image: Getty.

When the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg announced it would introduce free nationwide public transport from March 2020, the move was widely praised – some even claimed it was a world first, though that was to overlook Estonia) where the government introduced countrywide free public transport in 2018.

Even US senator Bernie Sanders offered his congratulations via Facebook. Luxembourg was suddenly in the limelight, and this time it wasn’t about tax havens or information leaks – it was something positive, heartening, virtuous.

The move has been great for Luxembourg’s image, but local users of the transport system have looked on in bemusement, if not confusion. They know that the public transport system is a mess, so it’s difficult to credit that Luxembourg’s sudden glory is well deserved. Indeed, we think there’s a good chance that making public transport free will actually make things worse for commuters.

To see why this feted policy is likely to end up backfiring, it’s necessary to understand the nation’s growing pains. Luxembourg is a small sovereign state, comprised of its capital city, small towns, and countryside – an urban region with a dispersed urbanisation around the main centre, spreading across the borders with Belgium, France and Germany. Having benefited from sustained growth, Luxembourg likes to present itself as a haven of stability and prosperity.

Luxembourg’s thorny problem

Luxembourg’s economy is supported largely by the financial sector, the European Union, and the booming industries of technology and innovation. It is home to more than 140 banks and has become a hotspot for specialised investment services. Luxembourg city is a European capital, home to the European Investment Bank, the Parliament Secretariat and the Court of Justice. Luxembourg has also attracted major players in the digital economy: Amazon, Skype and PayPal have headquarters there, and Google is considering establishing a data centre in the countryside.

As a result of these strategies, Luxembourg is a small but unusually international state; an economic engine that requires – and attracts – massive influxes of labour from neighbouring countries. Currently, roughly 422,000 people work in Luxembourg, while the country itself has a resident population of just over 600,000. Many of these jobs are located in the business districts in and around the capital city.

Almost half of the labour force (192,000) are cross-border commuters. Due to substantial immigration (Luxembourg’s population grows by 2.3 per cent every year) and the immense supply of office space, housing inside Luxembourg is scarce and costly.

The government is intent on continuing economic growth to preserve living standards and maintain the social security system at current levels. And so far it has succeeded: GDP grows steadily by 2 per cent to 4 per cent anually. Indeed, Luxembourg’s per capita GDP is among the highest in the world.

Yet this growth has also put a lot of pressure on the transport system. Roads, rail tracks and stations are in a dire state, and government funding has not caught up with current demand and delayed investments from the past. It is precisely this growth pressure that makes the problem really thorny and economic sustainability rather difficult to achieve.

During rush hours, trains coming in from the border regions are standing-room only – and are often late or cancelled – causing passengers to miss connecting services. Customer service and information is relatively poor. Ironically, the massive infrastructure investments recently initiated by the government have only generated more construction sites, bottlenecks and road blocks – at least for now.


If only it worked

Making public transport free looks set to make the situation worse. Fares are already heavily subsidised; a single fare between any two points in the country is €2, day passes are €4, and minors already ride free. So a further reduction is not likely to have a significant impact.

In this context, the notion that free transport is a means of wealth redistribution and social inclusion doesn’t square. It’s already cheap – and far outweighed by exploding housing costs, the country’s real inequality challenge. And, price is only one factor in an individual’s choice of transport. This means that pricing alone won’t likely trigger major changes in travel behaviour.

What’s more, when users realise that the system doesn’t work, there will be few alternatives available to them. Many will choose to go by car because it is faster and more reliable – while those who cannot afford that option, or are unable or simply do not like, to drive, will bear the burden. Ultimately, it will be taxpayers who compensate the revenue lost through declining ticket sales. This includes the cross-border commuters, who won’t benefit from the free transit inside Luxembourg, having paid their fares before the border.

In any case, serious attempts to mitigate the nation’s car culture are yet to arise. Cars remain an important status symbol for many residents and, at last count, Luxembourg had the highest number of cars per inhabitant in the EU. Education would be needed to overcome this addiction, but policies aimed at reducing car use are so unpopular as to be politically taboo, especially given the high incomes and low gasoline prices offered by the state.

Now it seems as though the attention-grabbing policy had less to do with solving public transport problems, and more to do with the government’s ongoing nation-branding campaign. This is the crux of the issue – the announcement of free public transport has created a good news story which, having circulated through the global media, has already fulfilled its purpose. Real problems and the profound difficulties in solving them are not addressed.

The whole idea of free public transport is utterly simplistic because of the complex, interrelated composition of demographic, socioeconomic and geopolitical issues at stake. If political leaders are serious about improving mobility, then they will need to undertake a more serious analysis of the problems, and provide a more convincing, context-sensitive set of proposals to solve them. But maybe that doesn’t matter, as long as it looks good.

Constance Carr, Senior Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Luxembourg and Markus Hesse, Professor of Urban Studies, University of Luxembourg.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.