New bill removes free intercity bus travel for children, disabled people

Tallinn Bus Station.
Tallinn Bus Station. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

A new draft bill suggests removing free bus travel for children and those with disabilities from intercity bus lines. Transport operators receive no compensation for this scheme and the European Court upheld their complaint.

Transport companies have complained for years that they receive no additional funding from the state to allow people to travel for free and that this is unfair.

After the court's ruling, the government must now decide what to do.

Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Riina Sikkut (SDE) is trying to find a solution and suggested the obligation simply be removed from commercial companies.

The new legislation will affect more than 90,000 children and around 20,000 people with disabilities.

A county bus that provides free public transport at Värska Bus Station. Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Children and those with disabilities will still be able to ride state-funded public transport for free, Ain Tatter, head of the ministry's Roads and Railways Department said.

Tatter thinks it is unlikely that all companies will introduce fares for these groups.

"There is a good chance that most companies will make it free for a preschool-age child," he said.

There is also the possibility that the obligation will return in several years time with state funding, Tatter said. But draft legislation is not expected in the near future, it is not known how state support would be assigned and there is no methodology to calculate it.

Four companies are seeking to claim compensation for lost ticket sales from the state, Tatter said.

Go Bus in Narva. Source: pressimaterjalid

However, the state does not have a good overview of how many people are taking the opportunity to use free intercity transport. 

"It is also perfectly possible that the carrier can just present us with a batch of free tickets, to say that this is how many free riders I had this month, please pay up," Tatter said. "It's also certainly not sensible from the point of view of the state budget, that the state has no control whatsoever and pays the money in good faith." 

Ideally, a solution needs to be in place to count how many people entitled to free intercity transport actually use it, the official said. This should go through the state's information system.

However, the Ministry of Social Affairs said this solution could not be developed for several years. Tatter suggested additional funding for these target groups could be found as a temporary fix.

Draft: Effect will be small

Elron train in front of Tallinn's Old Town. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The draft bill's explanatory note said the legislative change will not have a big impact.

The majority of people in these groups do not travel long distances regularly, the draft states.

When they do, many prefer to take the train rather than the bus, which is faster, has better accessibility and has its own subsidy system.

"The change may increase the cost of public transport for households with young children, but as the costs will not increase for all households, the effect will be negative on average. Overall, the impact can be assessed as negligible," the document says.

The conclusion was similar for people with disabilities.


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Editor: Barbara Oja, Helen Wright

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