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EU’s free InterRail scheme for 18-year-olds could be extended to planes, boats and buses

Concept is warmly welcomed by European Commission – but leading travel figures have mixed reactions

Having already announced proposals to dish out free InterRail tickets to 18-year-olds across the continent on their birthday, the EU has mooted plans also to bestow them with unlimited pan-European travel by sea and possibly air.

Last week, The Independent revealed the vision of a German MEP, Manfred Weber. Citizens of all EU countries would receive a voucher for a free InterRail ticket on their 18th birthday.

They could then use it to explore the other member states on the same unlimited-travel basis as on InterRail.

The concept has been warmly welcomed by the European Commission, which is known to be keen on initiatives that improve the standing of the EU after the Brexit vote. But there are issues with commonality, since the railways of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania do not participate in the InterRail scheme, while Cyprus and Malta have no passenger railways.

The Transport Commissioner, Violeta Bulc, has confirmed “the Commission likes this idea”, and has called for further study to see if buses, ships and perhaps even aircraft could be included: “Could the scheme become – at least progressively – intermodal, and not only limited to rail tickets?” she said in a statement to the European parliament.

Leading travel figures, however, are divided about the scheme’s prospects.

Airlines have dismissed the notion that they could be involved. Unlike train operators, they typically fill 90 per cent of seats, leaving few for potential standby passengers.

Tim Jeans, former managing director of Monarch, said: “Very quickly, it becomes completely impractical. Provided you want to go to Aberdeen from Luton on a wet Tuesday in November, then you might get a seat. Otherwise, forget it.”

Publicly-funded ferry companies could more easily be included in an “InterRailPlus” scheme, since they typically have spare capacity – as do many bus operators. But Jonathan Roberts, head of communications at the UK Chamber of Shipping, said: “We welcome the European Parliament’s acknowledgement that ferries provide an affordable, accessible and fun option for travellers. We would suggest though that, given young people in Europe face significant levels of unemployment, not to mention a wide variety of other social and economic problems, free holidays are perhaps not the best use of taxpayers’ money.”

Mark Smith, founder of the international rail website, said: “I’ll believe it when I see it, but in principle, if travel broadens the mind and fosters understanding between nations and cultures, boy could we do with more of that at the moment.

“It would also encourage young people to experience low-carbon overland travel and avoid knee-jerk recourse to budget airlines once they realise what’s possible with their feet on the ground.”

Nicky Gardner, co-editor of Hidden Europe magazine and a proponent of European rail travel, said: “We run across very many young people who have hardly been on a train, and to be honest would not – bar for this scheme – ever think of it. It could be a very good idea. It certainly will encourage people to discover a greater sense of European diversity.”

Ms Gardner pointed out that Deutsche Bahn has offered anyone aged 18 or under the chance to buy a month’s travel within Germany for €149 (£134). “All the evidence is that it “converted” many young people, brought up in car-owning families, into train travellers,” she said.

But Neil Taylor, a travel writer and tour guide, sounded notes of caution about the prospect of millions of 18-year-olds taking to the rails: “Many groups will use the tickets to travel to wherever drink is cheapest as, being 18, they can obtain it legally across the EU. Think what might happen to Kosice [in Slovakia] and Debrecen [in Hungary].

“In any case, a youngster who has hardly left home will not benefit from drifting around Europe. Concentrating on one area makes much better sense.”

Tim Jeans said: “Some of my most life-affirming moments at that age were when I was travelling to new places and encountering new and different cultures. But part of the fun was the summer job to pay for it all, and that I’d still believe in.”

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