Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

26th June 2012

Raised in a Bahn

Berlin S-Bahn train at Schönefeld Airport stationI tend to judge a town by the quality of its public transport. A city could have the world’s best cuisine, culture and nightlife, but if its subway system is scruffy, it will lose a lot of points in Hampo’s Travel Guide.

First impressions of Berlin’s transit network were, in fact, not good. We wanted to use the train to get into the city centre, but Schönefeld Airport station is an absolute dump. This could be excused because they were expecting the airport and its station to be closed from the beginning of June. However, there’s no excuse for the complete lack of information to guide incoming passengers. We had a vague idea that there was a “RegionalExpress” train into Berlin city centre, but we couldn’t find its departure platform amidst the jumble of destinations on the departure board and missed it.

S-Bahn interiorWe ended up instead on an ambling S-Bahn train. These suburban trains are great, but stopping at every little wayside station meant it took forever. Also, the train terminated at Sudkreuz, some way short of our intended destination. We had to change to another S-Bahn line, then transfer to the U-Bahn to reach the station nearest to our hotel. It took a lot longer than we thought it would.

Fortunately our later experiences cancelled out this initial trouble, and I’m pleased to report that – from this tourist’s point of view at least – Berlin’s transport is generally quite good.

Berlin Südkreuz stationMost of Berlin’s transport is operated by the Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG). This organisation is effectively Berlin’s equivalent of Transport for London. BVG run the buses, trams and underground (U-Bahn) system. Germany’s national state-owned rail company, Deutsche Bahn, provide services on the suburban railway (S-Bahn) and the Regionalbahn which extends further afield.

The average passenger in Berlin doesn’t need to worry about this, as there is a single unified ticketing structure which covers all of the above, operated by the VBB. And they really are interchangeable: you can buy a Single ticket and interchange between train, bus and tram without having to pay again, something that is generally not possible in unenlightened England. If you want a full day’s travel, there are day rover tickets available for absurdly cheap prices.

BVG/VBB ticketOne immediate difference about the transport system that I noticed: there are no ticket barriers, anywhere. Even the biggest and busiest U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations were completely open. Just buy a ticket, validate it in one of the platform machines, and walk onto the train unhindered. There are presumably spot checks carried out, but we didn’t see any throughout our travels. It certainly makes for a more user-friendly experience, but I’d be interested to see what the levels of fare dodging are like. I actually suspect that Berliners might just be that bit more honest than the British.

I like the Berlin stations. The city centre stations are suitably grand, with expansive platforms and big overall roofs. It’s like the Berliners decided to build a Liverpool South Parkway every couple of miles. Below left is Alexanderplatz, while the right-hand picture is Zoologischer Garten.

Berlin Alexanderplatz station Zoologischer Garten railway station

The grandest of all is the new Hauptbahnhof, a massive new station intended to unify the East and West Berlin rail networks. Previously, West and East Berlin had been served by separate main stations (Zoologischer Garten and Ostbahnhof, respectively), reflecting the division of the city. These stations still exist, but have been downgraded in importance since the new station opened.

We walked near Hauptbahnhof while we were doing our Berlin Wall trek, but didn’t venture inside. Still, here’s a photo for you. The station is slightly in the middle of nowhere at the moment, being surrounded by building sites and connected to the U-Bahn only by a short shuttle service, the U55. However, continued work should see it fully integrated into Berlin life within the next few years.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof

My impressions of the U-Bahn were good – we rarely waited long for a train, and although the trains were busy they were never unpleasantly so (having said that, we avoided the rush hours). However, travelling late one evening, we did run into that scourge of the traveller: the Essential Engineering Works – they’re not just a British phenomenon after all.

Side note: I repeatedly forgot that Berlin railways use right-hand running and looked the wrong way down the tracks for my train, only to be surprised when it appeared behind me. I’m a rubbish tourist.

The U-Bahn and S-Bahn trains are both of the wide-gangwayed “you can see right down the train” type, like the trains on London Overground or the new Metropolitan Line stock. It was fun to sit at the far end of the train and watch the carriages writhe around in a snake-like fashion as we negotiated the various curves and gradients.

Bundesplatz U-Bahn station Berlin Ku'damm station

I did make a special trip to Wittenbergplatz, which has a London Underground style roundel on one of the platforms. This was donated to Berlin by LT in 1952 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the U-Bahn. The station itself is something of an architectural marvel too – it’s an Art Nouveau masterpiece built in 1913. Lovely.

Hampo at Wittenbergplatz Entrance to Wittenbergplatz station

Travelling back to the Airport on Sunday, this time we were able to locate the appropriate express train. It leaves from Zoologischer Garten station which was conveniently close to our hotel. I was excited at finally having the chance to ride in an actual continental double-decker railway carriage.

Excellently, DB Regio trains are covered by the standard VBB tickets so we didn’t need to pay any extra fee for the travel to the airport. Our train rolled in at the appointed time and I made a point of sitting upstairs.

Berlin Airport Express train Berlin Airport Express train

It was a novelty for me, but by German standards it is just a bog-standard train. Also, this “express” train actually stopped at quite a few stations and didn’t seem to be particularly fast. Regional trains in Britain (when travelling on main lines, anyway) actually seem to go at a faster pace than our German train did. I guess for proper express travel you need to get on one of the gleaming ICE trains (and pay the extra price).

DB Regio Train interior Hampo on a DB train

Maybe that’s just me being picky. Overall I approve of Germany’s railways. Admittedly that’s based on a fairly narrow experience of them and my views might be different if I was a normal passenger, not a tourist. After all, I think the London Underground is great, but I suspect that would change if I used it as a commuter.

Hampo in front of DB Regio train Berlin S-Bahn train seen from Fernsehturm

Final nugget of information for you: Arriva, that much-loved British bus and rail operator, is now wholly owned by Deutsche Bahn. Can we possibly dare to hope that German levels of service will come to the UK?

One thing’s for sure: I certainly prefer bright red to turquoise.

DB locomotive DB loco

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