Espiners Berlin : To the borders of the AB zone

It seems Berlin doesn’t need terror threats to bring it to a standstill. Just a bit of snow. Mark Espiner about Public Transport in Berlin.

Mark Espiner
Mark Espiner.Foto: Thilo Rückeis

OK, so last week’s whiteout was more a blizzard than a dusting. Still, the little white flakes stopped the S-Bahn in its tracks and, worse, grounded aircraft at Schönefeld. My sister was supposed to arrive from England to look round the Christmas markets and see Berlin for the first time, guided by me (don’t laugh). But the airport ran out of de-icer so easyJet (or should that be icyJet?) cancelled her flight. 

A bit of snow brings pretty much everything to standstill in Britain, but I hadn’t expected that here. Had she made it, I would have met her at the airport and travelled on the fast, fantastic and cheap airport shuttle train service. It’s worth reminding you Berliners that it only costs €2.80 to get from Schoenefeld to the city centre. Compare that to London where from any airport it’s at least €15 and often a lot more. And here you get that wonderful, if surreal, DB fanfare at every stop. I asked my musical friend Dorian from this band to remind me of how it goes. He pointed out that there are in fact two. Click here to hear them (excuse the rendition). Be warned, though, they are earworms. By the way does anyone know who wrote those jingles? I’d love to know.

While we’re on the subject of public transport, I feel it’s my duty to point out a few positive things. My new ex-pat friend Dave (who’s been living in Berlin for over 20 years) says one of the best things about this city is that the public transport really works. He loves it. I love it too. 

I feel really at home on your buses. Perhaps that’s because the ones in London are exactly the same as yours here - made by the same German firm, of course (part of Mercedes, no less). The German “bendy” buses caused a bit of an uproar when they replaced London’s famous Routemaster double deckers. But now, rattling around Berlin in what feels like a new London bendy-bus gives me a disorientating sense of deja vu. Thank God they’re not red here, or I might get really confused.

I’ve just shelled out a whopping €558 for a year-long all-transport travel pass. It was a response to the panic-inducing sick feeling I had during the several risky U-Bahn journeys I made without a ticket. I wasn’t willfully breaking the rules. It was just that I was often in a rush and always found the ticket machines too slow; they’d still be printing out the ticket when the train was pulling in and then pulling out of the station. And then there would be only one validation machine - often at the other end of the platform.

Whenever I travelled in this ticketless condition, I feared that the Ticket Stasi would catch me. Thankfully, it never happened. Ironically, though, since I bought my pass I’ve been pounced on three times in less than a month by their surprise tactics. I’m not sure I like those guys. I know they’re only doing their job, but they seem to really enjoy jumping out of their disguises and demanding to see your ticket. And it seems they like it even more if they catch someone out and can humiliate them a bit. Don’t you think they should wear some kind of uniform, not Böhse Onkelz badges and scruffy trainers, so we know what we’re dealing with? In fact, why don’t they have their own fanfare to signal that they’ve entered the carriage, like the one on the airport train I mentioned earlier. Here it is again (this time on YouTube at 53 seconds in). I know, why don’t you send me your musical suggestions for the ultimate ticket controller fanfare? I’ll give a prize for the best one.

In London we get round the need for any inspectors with the Oyster card. It’s a pre-paid travel card that you use to open the barrier to get in to the station. The Oyster card, though, gives you the illusion of freedom while being even more Stasi like. It tracks every journey you make and logs the info in a huge database. And it has made barriers in the stations absolutely necessary. One of things I really like about the Berlin U-Bahn stations, is that they have no restrictions like that. You can just walk in. No automatic barrier to negotiate. It’s less regimented, less processed. 

The Berlin carriages are more liberal too – roomier than London ones, even though they never get as crowded. This picture is not an exaggeration of what it can be like on the tube in London. When you can sit down (it’s not always possible) there are arm rests on the long benches, which make it a squeeze for larger London citizens and separate the travellers from each other. No arm rests for you here, though. You Berliners like to be a little cosier than we do, perhaps, and snuggle up to one another, or negotiate your own space with your inimitable politeness.

Now I’ve got my freedom pass, I plan to use it. I’m thinking of riding all the bus, tram, u-bahn and s-bahn routes to the borders of the AB zone. And, who knows, maybe even beyond... I like the sound of Krumme Lanke, Wuhlheide and Zitadelle. Any other suggestions?

You can email Mark on and follow him on Twitter @DeutschMarkUK.