Transport in Deutschland
Transportation is something that fascinates me. I’m not a car or boat buff, and I don’t know the different types of planes or trains, but man’s modes of transport nevertheless interest me, perhaps because getting there is so important to me. Air travel, for one, although obnoxious when things go astray or you’re traveling by yourself, has always given me a thrill of adventure.
It’s a cliche that Germans are efficient when it comes to transportation, but it’s a deservedly true reputation. Traveling in Germany I got to sample many types of transportation, and I got the impression that there were infinitely more: from short- to long-distance trains, from u-bahns to s-bahns, Germany’s got you covered:
- Airports: Germany airports are a study in how all airports should be: compact and easily laid out, so you don’t get lost. Munchen’s Airport has unique architecture (see above) and a quick baggage-retrieval system (that is, if Air France doesn’t delay your bag first). Berlin’s Tegel Airport was nondescript in terms of frills (apparently the Frankfurt Airport is Germany’s largest hub) but small and easily accessible.
- Automobiles: BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes are commonplace, of course (just like the Hamptons!) Sadly, my favorite car of all time-the Volkswagon Beetle-is not, although I did catch these classic VB Buses outside a parking garage in Munchen.
- Trams: To me, trams are just above-ground subways that go really slow (unless we’re talking the picturesque ones in San Francisco). In Germany the train tracks run right on the road with the cars. I didn’t take the tram, but I almost got hit by the one above in Berlin: I was walking in what I presumed to be the sidewalk/open space in snowy Alexanderplatz ( the tracks obviously covered by the snow) when I turned around just in time to see a tram quietly looming up behind me. It was literally mere seconds away from me, and when I started to laugh in shock at my near miss, I realized that other people around me were laughing to. Ah vell….
- Buses: I was forced to take buses from the train depots during my sightseeing tours. They seemed par for the course, although they had a little screen announcing then next stop and were actually quite roomy.
- Trains: Although buses might be used for short distances in a town or city, they’re not a popular choice for between-city travel. And why should they be, when Germany has such excellent train service? I took short-distance trains out of Munich’s hopbahnhof as part of my tours to Dachau and Neuschwanstein Castle; these trains are composed of little campartments of seats facing each other, sometimes with an upper level, and ride smoothly. I also took a high-speed bahn from Munchen to Berlin (highly pricey unless you book ahead). The trains are spotless and well-lit with carpeting and soft seats with neck-pillow hybrids. There was a restaurant compartment, and enough legroom so that the 6 hours (!) I spent on there were much more comfortable than sitting on an airplane.
- Subway: Ah, my favorite. Just as I critiqued Barcelona’s subway system last January, I again have plenty to say about Berlin’s Untergrundbahn, or U-bahn. Again, Berlin’s system puts New York’s MTA to absolute shame. The train stations were mostly clean and well-kept (the Princesa station at top being an exception to this; it’s long-time down escalators were scrawled with graffiti), and some, like Alexanderplatz, had massive networks below with shops ranging from flower/plant stalls to trendy clothes brands and fast-food outlets, not to mention your standard magazine-and-candy stalls. Trains were announced on screens and they arrived constantly so you never had to wait long. The trains themselves were, again, spotless and smooth rides, never sending you flying or wobbling as you hold on to the railing (ahem, MTA…) There were little tv screens inside showing short clips and ads (I even saw an ad for French female group Brigitte). The one flaw I found was that the train’s seats were not a very efficient design in terms of providing more seating room. But what absolutely surprised me about the U-bahn was that technically, you don’t have to pay! At each station there are your customary guichets (which refuse anything higher than a 10 Euro bill and seem to prefer coins) as well as “validating machines.” In lieu of having to pass through a turnstyle, you simply “validate” your ticket by holding it under the machine so it gets stamped, and when the train comes, just step on…After a few rides and diminishing cash, I realized: who would know if I just…didn’t buy a ticket? I don’t condone stealing, but the system in Berlin completely mystified me: was it a sort of honor system? Did the Germans only expect to gain revenue from tourists too stupid to realize that no one would know (nor did they physically need) if they bought a ticket or not? It’s possible that they have policemen do random checks on the trains sometimes, and if you’re caught without a ticket you have to pay a heavy fine on-spot (this was the only possible solution I could think of) which would deter people from sneaking on. The first time I “snuck on,” my two-stations-ago-validated ticket in my pocket, I couldn’t help get a little thrill-at the shock that a country would be so un-greedy as to allow their citizens to essentially use public transport for free!