Does the future of travel lie in London’s ticket barriers or Berlin’s passenger trust?

Ticket barriers at London's Cannon Street tube station. Photo: Getty

In Berlin, tourists from London, Paris, Madrid, or even Moscow may be surprised to find that upon leaving Schönefeld Airport, there are no ticket barriers greeting them at the nearby S-Bahn stop. Instead, all passengers are kindly reminded that before boarding their train, they should “validate” their travel with a stamp from one of the nearby machines. Anybody who forgets to do so is met with the less friendly reminder that the penalty fare for such an act is 60 euros. And I should know, because I’ve paid that very price. So why employ such a system?

Although disconcerting at first, relying on ticket validation does make rather a lot of sense. Passengers can purchase as many tickets as they want, whenever they want, and simply stamp one every time they take a ride on the public transport network – be this by bus, tram, U-Bahn or S-Bahn. Day tickets are stamped when travellers take their first journey of the day, and are valid thereafter. This system, with its lack of physical barrier between the passenger and the train, is a vestige of a time before ticket barriers, when inspectors were the only way of ensuring passengers had paid for their travel.

Passengers in Berlin can still be prosecuted for travelling while in the possession of a ticket that they haven’t yet validated, because there’s no way of telling how long they’ve been doing so. Effectively, riding with an invalidated ticket is no different to going completely ticket-less; tickets are only “spent” after being validated, and could otherwise be used over and over again. A system of validation doesn’t necessitate thousands of inspectors, but does require a greater element of trust. In Berlin, even if fare evasion isn’t a problem, it’s always a worry.

Fare dodgers cost Berlin €20 million in 2015 alone, with 18.3 per cent of Berliners “sometimes” riding without a ticket, according to one survey –  although a more reasonable estimate puts the figure at somewhere between three and five per cent. If correct, this would mean the German capital’s rate of fare evasion is on a par with that of the London Underground – surprising, given the British system makes doing so much harder, and threatens to charge up to 16 times as much.

Because, while it’s claimed that physical barriers reduce fare evasion – and as such are being employed by more and more public transport authorities – the jury’s still out on their effectiveness. For starters, if passengers feel as though they’re receiving a good service, they’ll often be more than willing to pay for it – regardless of whether or not they’re forced into doing so. Moreover, removing ticket barriers – which are often predatory, imposing structures – fosters a better relationship between the city and the people, with the opposite being true when security is hardened to keep fare dodgers out.


What’s more, ticketing systems that don’t employ barriers enjoy several distinct benefits, including that it's just all-round easier to design stations without having to think about where to put them. Consider King’s Cross at rush hour; you might not realise it, but there are several different (and potentially time consuming) routes in and out of the station, with the aim of directing passengers in certain routes to prevent dangerous crushes at the gates. In Berlin, this is hardly a worry – you just get off the train and leave the station. The threat of a crush never really comes up, because there’s no comparable choke point.

This relative design simplicity means that stations without ticket barriers are less cluttered, and as such reaching sub-surface lines requires only walking down some stairs to a platform where all the necessary amenities are integrated. This removes the need for a large building at surface level, which can make construction more costly, especially when land costs are at a premium.

It remains that paper ticket validation is less convenient in the long term than the likes of the Oyster Card, but Germany has travelcards too, and they’re easily merged with the validation system. However, the necessity of ticket inspectors still means higher costs are incurred, and their implementation on busy public transport systems can often be cumbersome. For example, in Berlin there’s more room for ticket inspectors in the less busy outer zones – leading to a peculiar form of fare evasion discrimination.

Perhaps then, the best case scenario lies somewhere in the middle, for which we only need look to the humble London bus. In a time before Boris, the driver would have to print a ticket for every rider. When hop-on hop-off Routemasters were reinstated, they added a conductor for fare protection and health and safety. When this proved uneconomical, the hop-on feature was removed – but in its wake all London Buses became ticket-free in 2014, with contact with the driver often reduced to the dulcet tones of the Oyster card reader. All possible barriers between the passenger and the journey were removed, in favour of a single touch.

Of course, that a bus driver in London is able to see the entire vehicle from their seat makes policing passengers much easier. Security on public transport is only being ramped up, but if it means less barriers between paying and getting moving, that’s almost certainly a good thing. For commuters in Tallinn, Estonia, public transport is free of charge – on the condition that their travel card is irrevocably tied to their social security number. If that doesn’t tell us where we’re headed, nothing will: one day, we won’t need barriers or inspectors for our tickets. All we’ll need is ourselves.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.