Planes, Trains and Ohne Automobiles

by bobbigmac

I’ve spent the last week in Berlin, perusing the city, taking in the sights, and learning in brief what there is to learn about the history of Germany, from Prussia to ‘the war’, and onto the fall of the wall.

For the most part it seems much like any other western European city, with the exception of the clear east-west divide, and the associated fallout from communist rule.

Grand designs

Oddly, from the Reichstag, to the palaces, museums, domes and other grand achievements, none of them struck me as quite as significant an accomplishment as the Berlin public transport system. Simply put, it’s phenomenal.

Of course I say this from the standpoint of a British transportee, we’re very familiar with late or slow trains, shifting (and disappearing) bus timetables, constant roadworks and seemingly ineffective infrastructure refits.

The Berlin transport system was by comparison a blissful experience to use, even at peak hours the trams weren’t too crammed. Not once did I have my face pushed up against the inside of an automatic door, which is a London-based experience I’m never keen to repeat. The buses were peaceful (no chavs playing crappy songs through even crappier speakers every second row of seats), and the waiting time for any bus, train or tram was never more than 7 minutes.

All trams ran almost as often during the night as the day, and on a network where you would rarely be more than a 5-minute walk from your final destination. Each stop was announced by voice and by a handy little screen at the end of each carriage, along with the final destination, so I’m happy to say we always alighted exactly where we’d intended to.

Just the start

Amazingly, it’s not just the big things they get right, it’s all the little ones: the ticket machines are fairly easy to use, and provide multiple languages (my German is worse than my Klingon :)), we had at least 2 two trams actually wait for us to finish running down the platform without it passing us with a head-shake from the driver (any British commuter will be very familiar with this head-shake).

I’m estimating we made about 30 separate journeys over the course of the week, most very short, just a few stops at a time. This was not a problem given the ticketing system validated a weekly ticket once and once only. The ninja ticket-inspectors dressed in plain-clothes with nothing but a discreet badge on requesting your ticket were polite and patient: digging through 6 layers of jacket, jumper, shirts and wallet would probably have you thrown from any moving british vehicle 😉

Add all that to the cleanliness and comfort of the carriages and cabs, along with the generally smooth rides, and lovely little tunes on the S-Bahn (Overground train) before each stop, and even then there are still more good things to be said.

I was even nosy enough to watch a few of the tram drivers as they worked, they smiled and waved at the other drivers, they didn’t look quite so dour and depressed as you average British driver, and even noticed one brushing his hair as he fiddled with the assorted dials and buttons at his convenience.

Emergence

When considering the effort required in managing a workflow on this scale, I obviously find it hard to model exactly how something can be that well run. Transport in the UK has always seemed something of a slap-dash affair, maybe I’ll get there, maybe I wont; maybe for dinner, maybe for tea, supper if I have to change at Watford Junction or take a rail-replacement bus.

Perhaps it’s as much else in Britain, a case of decentralisation causing the worst of all worlds for everyone (except of course the politicians selling their policy votes and the City VCs raking in the profit). I’ve worked in large scale transport projects in the UK in my corporate past, and it’s usually farmed out to so many consultancies and contractors that no-one piece knows what any other is doing. That may be a great way to build a ‘Cube‘, but not so useful for any public system :)

Home

Well anyway, despite all I’ve said, I’m home now, and it’s back to long waits, unknown delays, dour drivers and chavs, upset schedules, replacement buses, long ticket queues and broken machines.

But you know what?

As much as I enjoyed Berlin, and can appreciate it’s successes… there’s just not enough ‘crazy’ there for me, for now I’ll stick with being British :)

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