Regional bus lines wind up free transport as emergency situation ends

Free bus travel on a provincial Estonian bus. Source: Anette Parksepp/ERR

Free bus transport in three Estonian counties is to end from Monday, with the end of the emergency situation. The free travel was largely instated since measures taken to protect drivers from the public also prevented the latter from getting close enough to actually pay for a ticket – since this ran the risk of them passing on the coronavirus to the driver.

After the emergency situation, which the government installed on March 12 in response to the spreading pandemic, expires on Sunday at midnight, the regular system will return and passengers will have to pay again, according to a report on Saturday's edition of ETV's "Aktuaalne kaamera" news show.

This is despite the fact that the 2+2 rule, and other anti-coronavirus regulations, are to remain in place after Sunday.

"First of all, [making public transport free to all] was intended to ensure the safety of bus drivers," said Vello Jõgisoo, director of Harju County public transport center.

"In order that drivers would not come into contact with potential passengers... passengers could not get closer to the bus driver when they got in and out of the bus," he went on.

The three counties in Estonia where there had been free public transport for all, as a result of the pandemic, have been Rapla and Pärnu counties, as well as Harju County.

Tallinn, located in Harju County, has offered free public transport to all residents of the city, regardless of whether they were Estonian citizens or not, since 2013. Non-residents, including Estonian citizens from outside the capital, had not been eligible and still had to but tickets.

From the start of the emergency situation, the bus driver's cabin was sealed off, usually with red tape, and entrance and egress from a bus via the front door was halted. This meant that a driver could not practically sell tickets on-board, making it easier to permit passengers to ride for free, in the sense of not having to buy a ticket.

Tallinn itself, which has followed stricter regulations than much of the rest of the country during the pandemic, retains this practise to the end of May, the report said.

In Pärnu County, also winding up free public transport on Monday, riding for free was only possible on buses where only one validator, used for swiping pre-paid cards, was available, if that was close to the front door.

"It will be possible to buy a paper ticket from the bus driver if necessary, and our own sincere recommendation is simply for passengers to behave responsibly and, if possible, still use a card and contactless validation," said Andrus Kärpuk, director of Pärnu County's public transport center.

Bus lines are in some cases seeking compensation for the additional costs incurred from enforcing hygiene requirements while not taking ticket receipts, through the latter half of March, the whole of April, and the first half of May.

The Harju County center has submitted a request to the Road Administration (Maanteeamet) to reimburse the additional costs of nearly €120,000 incurred during the emergency, including that from lost ticket revenue and the cost of disinfection equipment.

"Companies offer a price, a price per route kilometer, and no matter how many people are on the busese, they get the money. So if the bus is completely empty and the company nonetheless runs the route as is, the carriers will get the price offered in the procurement process," said Harju County's Vello Jõgisoo.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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