• AFP-JIJI, Reuters

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Luxembourg on Saturday became the first country in the world to offer free public transport as the small and wealthy EU country tries to help workers who are less well off and reduce road traffic.

Some cities elsewhere have already taken similar partial measures, including the Estonian capital, Tallinn. But the transport ministry said it was the first time such a decision covered an entire country.

The free transport move, flagged as “an important social measure,” affects about 40 percent of the country’s households and is projected to save each around €100 ($110) per year.

An annual standard pass was worth €440 ($485) before, and travelers can still pay for first-class transport at a cost of €660 a year.

“For people with low incomes or the minimum wage, for them it’s really substantial,” transport minister Francois Bausch said. “The main reason is to have a better quality of mobility, and then the side reason is clearly also environmental issues.”

Not all passengers were aware of the change, which was brought forward a day ahead of schedule.

“It’s free? I didn’t know,” said a woman in her 50s who gave her first name as Dominique as she waited at Luxembourg’s main train station.

Transport workers were concerned about how the measure would affect their job security.

“We don’t yet know” what will happen to their positions, said one ticket seller at the station who declined to give his name.

“All the public transport workers are worried. It’s not yet clear.”

The measure is part of a plan intended to reduce congestion.

Private cars are the most used means of transport in the grand duchy, accounting for 47 percent of business travel and 71 percent of leisure transport.

With more than 200,000 people living in neighboring France, Germany and Belgium who work in Luxembourg, most of them driving in, that makes for major traffic jams at peak hours.

The population of the tiny country is just 610,000, but those cross-border workers account for half of all its employees.

Alexandre Turquia, a sales manager at a hotel group, drives to work in the capital from a neighboring village. The trip should take 30 minutes, but traffic means it can last an hour. Still, he says his car is the best option.

“If it’s a day where I need to visit customers that are far away, I will take my car for sure,” he said.

But Mia Mayer, an employee at Amazon, has already switched from driving to work to taking the bus to save time and money. “I had the experience on an almost daily basis of trying to get through the city center, getting really stuck in traffic and sometimes taking 45 to 50 minutes. Luxembourg city is not a huge place, so that really is a long driving time,” she said.

The capital city of Luxembourg has invested in its public transport network, notably by building a tram network, but commuters complain it is still patchy.

Despite these investments, the government expects 65 percent of commuters to still get to work by car in 2025, down from 73 percent in 2017. It will be some years before the network links to the northern airport, for instance.

“There’s been an enormous delay to the development of public transport,” said Blanche Weber, head of the Luxembourg Ecological Movement that is pressing for better links on environmental grounds.

“Systematic and continuous investment is a sine qua non condition for promoting the attractiveness of public transport,” admitted transport minister Francois Bausch.

Sales of tickets on the domestic network — which cost €2 per journey — previously covered just 8 percent of the €500 million cost of running the transport system. That shortfall will now be met from the treasury.

Ticket machines are to be gradually removed from stations, but offices selling tickets for international train trips and for first-class seating in Luxembourg — which continues to be a paying service — will remain.

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