Schwarzfahren – or riding on a train or tram without a ticket – is a finable offence in Germany. But it’s so easy to do, many people don’t take the fines seriously and others say: “If they want people to pay – why don’t they fit barriers and actually MAKE people pay?” Authorities in Germany recently raised the minimum fine for ‘schwarzfahren’ to €60, but is this really enough to change people’s behaviour? Let’s talk tickets and why it’s a good idea to buy them.
When I first came to Germany I was amazed by the squeeky clean streets, the kajillion bicycles, the ridiculous level of tidiness, and of course, the free public transport. “Wow,” I thought, “Germany can lay on trains, trams and buses for free – no wonder the taxes are so high!” One 80 DM fine later and I was dispelled of that illusion forever. But it’s a very easy mistake to make. Visitors to Germany, especially anyone coming from a big city, will be amazed by the absence of barriers at German train and underground stations. You can simply walk in and out without paying a cent and no one will stop you.
The system is based on a sense of honour, trust and duty – which big city inhabitants might scoff at, but when you think about it, is kind of nice to have. Even though they’re not ‘made’ to pay, people understand that they ‘have’ to pay. It is, of course easy to take advantage of a system like this and travel ‘schwarz’ (black/without paying), whenever and however often you like, but that doesn’t make it right.
More inspectors – more chance of getting caught
If you get caught you will be fined – the minimum payment is €60 for the tram/U-bahn. Taking a free ride in first class on a Deutsche Bahn train is likely to cost you over €100. According to a recent article in the FAZ over €250 million are lost each year in Germany due to people not buying tickets on German trams. It also costs around €100 million per year just to pay all the ticket inspectors. So all that ‘fine’ money is badly needed by the transport authorities across Germany, making your chances of getting caught even higher.
You would think that with this ‘duty-bound-honour-system’ in place they’d at least make it easy to buy tickets; you know, like being able to pay for your ticket on the tram with your EC or credit card. But of course, that’s not the case. Up until very recently, you could ONLY pay with coins – no notes – just small change. You’d need to know pretty much to the cent what your journey was going to cost before even getting on the tram. This requires the kind of Germanic organizational skills that foreigners can only dream of.
However, things are looking up. Last week I discovered a ticket machine, on a tram, that allowed me to pay with notes and cards! In my state of shock and disbelief, I managed to buy a 4er strip ticket that would take me all the way to the Drachenfels – and I only needed to go three stops.
Do your duty and pay
Of course, the best reason to buy a ticket – apart from to avoid paying a fine – is to set a good example to your kids. I’ve had to start buying tickets more regularly now that my children are old enough to question why we have to dash off the tram whenever the guy in the black hat starts approaching our end of the carriage. The kids cause such a stink if I even forget to stamp the damn thing I’m even thinking about putting my fare dodging days permanently behind me and buying a monthly pass.
So what have we learned? Quite simply, crime doesn’t pay, or rather – this seemingly harmless little crime will make you pay quite a lot if you get caught. So stop playing the hapless foreigner, just do your duty and buy a ticket.