Free commuter trains: everything you need to know about how to take advantage of it

Puigneró affirms proposal will not apply to Generalitat's integrated tickets

Natàlia Vila and Mar Bermúdez i Jiménez
3 min
Cercanías users in an archive image.

BarcelonaMore doubts than certainties. This is the initial sensation left by Pedro Sánchez's announcement this Tuesday about the gratuity of travelcards for state-run commuter and mid-distance trains, from September 1 until December 31. The measure has taken users, the Generalitat and the Metropolitan Transport Authority (ATM) – which sets the prices for integrated fares in Catalonia – by surprise. The measure, which will be financed with an extraordinary loan, arrived with very little details and no specifics about how the fare will be rolled out in practice to the network of different fare options and tickets that coexist in the public transport system. It should also be remembered that only a week ago the Spanish government had already announced a 50% reduction in season tickets, which will now be extended to full gratuity for state-run trains.

The lack of specifics has led Catalan vice-president and Territory minister Jordi Puigneró to brand the measure as "populist" yesterday afternoon. "What users are asking for is a service that works, not a free service," he said. The vice-president explained the economic impact the measure may have on financing of the Generalitat and wondered who would bear the costs of this free service.

What do we know so far about the measure and how it affects commuters?

Which tickets are specifically affected?

Puigneró has been at pains to specify that the free fare does not affect any of Catalonia's integrated transport tickets, that is, those that allow the use of bus, metro, tramways and also commuter trains indistinctly. These are designed by the ATM (called T-Usual, T-Casual or T-Jove, among others). Therefore, only Renfe's multi-journey tickets will be free of charge, i.e. the 10-trip Bonotrén, the monthly pass and the quarterly pass. There will be no discount on single round-trip tickets either, because the free fare applies only to purchases for more than two trips.

On the other hand, all other public transport will be half price during that same period, with the State financing 60% of that reduction and the Generalitat 40%.

Who can take advantage of the reduction in Catalonia?

Although it does not affect integrated tickets, the measure may benefit a large number of passengers who may decide to change from their usual ATM ticket to Renfe's own ticket, which will now be free of charge. The Government already foresees a great impact, for example, on TMB travelcards for over one zone. since users who normally buy multi-zone T-Usual or T-Casual tickets will now be able to switch to Renfe's Bonotrén, which will be free of charge. If they come to Barcelona from another travel zone, the price used to be more expensive using a Bonotrén. Now, however, they will be able to get a free Bonotrén and then buy single-zone tickets to travel within the city, which will reduce their overall cost. For example, a person who lives in Mataró (zone 3) but works every day in Barcelona and uses a ten-journey ticket (the T-Casual) will no longer have to pay €30.50 for this ticket, instead paying €5.68 (reduced from €11.35) for a one-zone pass if they want to move within the city once they get off the train.

Will the trains be able to cope with an increase in demand?

This is, at present, the great doubt in the sector. Insiders point out that the announcement of free travel could increase demand for trains to the detriment of private vehicles. In fact, this is the main reason why the Sánchez government is promoting the measure. The problem, however, is that the network is saturated. Currently the demand for Cercanías-Renfe stands at 80% compared to prior to the pandemic, according to official company data. Therefore, there is only a 20% margin before trains travel at their limit. If the measure overly encourages citizens to switch to public transport, the system may not be able to absorb all the demand. Industry sources point out that, at this point, there will be little room for manoeuvre because, although the Generalitat could decide to make changes and reorganise its services, the lines are already quite full and there is no room for more trains.

Platform for Public Transport vice-president Dolors Clavell celebrates the measure but admits that "it can generate a large demand". The association welcomes the "positive message about the use of public transport", but warns that the proposal cannot be detrimental to quality: "We must ensure that this is not detrimental to the management and improvement of the service, where there is a large deficit," says Clavell.