Public transport in London and Germany

I was in Europe for the past three weeks, hence the light posting. I travelled

around London and Germany, and although it won’t surprise anyone to hear that

the public transportation system in Germany is much better than it is in London,

even I was surprised at how much better it was.

On the one hand are the weaknesses of the London system. London has a wonderful

thing called the Oyster

card, a must-have for any London resident or visitor. (NYC is presently

trialling a weak

imitation.) You use it to tap into and out of tube stations and buses, and

it’s more or less replaced the longstanding institution of the one-day travelcard.

Rather than pay in advance for unlimited use of public transportation for the

day, you simply rack up journeys on your prepaid card as normal; Oyster will

stop charging you when your total for the day reaches 50p less than

the price of a one-day travelcard.

The problem with the Oystercard is not with the card itself, which seems to

work much better than anything else Transport for London runs. Rather, the problem

goes back to that famously misguided Tory cockup, rail privatisation. You see,

while most of London north of the river is well served by the London Underground,

London south of the river relies instead on above-ground rail services. Where

I grew up in Dulwich, for instance, it’s easy to take a train into Victoria

which takes less than 15 minutes, but there’s no tube service at all. Conversely,

Hampstead, which is the north London equivalent to Dulwich, is well served by

the Northern Line, but doesn’t have any above-ground trains.

As a result, the travelcard is designed to be platform-agnostic: whether you’re

taking the train to West Dulwich or the tube to Hampstead, the same card will

do the job. But the train companies haven’t really signed on to the program,

which results in all manner of annoyances. Because of the no-need-to-buy-a-travelcard

feature of the Oyster card, Oyster has actually made it impossible

to put a one-day travelcard onto an Oyster card. But then you decide to visit

somewhere south of the river, and you miss your train because the trains only

accept Oyster cards with travelcards on them, not the prepaid Oyster cards that

are perfectly good for travelling around the rest of the city. (It’s possible

to put a seven-day or one-month travelcard on an Oyster card, just not the one-day


Now rail privatisation postdates the construction of the rail network, which

is reasonably well integrated with the train network. But although the networks

are physically integrated, they’re now all run by different companies, which

causes loads of completely unnecessary nightmares for travellers. For instance,

flying back from Germany to London, I arrived at Stansted airport and was staying

near Herne Hill station in south London. Stansted has a good train station,

and so does Herne Hill. Could I, then, simply buy a ticket from the former to

the latter? No, that would be far too easy. Arriving at Stansted, the ticket

machines would only sell me tickets on the Stansted Express ("express"

here meaning nothing beyond the fact that it’s a train which travels from a

London terminus to a London airport, and is very expensive.) The first ticket

machine, in fact, sat on my card for ages before failing to disgorge any tickets;

the second gave me my two tickets to Liverpool Street for £30.

At Liverpool Street, you can buy tickets from the train station or tickets

from the tube station. We needed to take the tube, so we used our Oyster cards

to go three stops to Farringdon. Now at Farringdon, the tube platform where

we got off is right next to the train platform from which we were taking a train

to Herne Hill. Convenient, no? But there are two problems. Firstly, you need

to "tap out" with your Oyster card when you finish your journey, so

that the card knows whether to bill you for a little three-stop Central London

trip or for a long journey well out into the suburbs. And there’s no Oyster

station between the tube and train platforms at Farringdon, which means you

can’t "tap out" there. There’s also no ticket machine on the train

platform, so in any case there was no way of buying our ticket to Herne Hill.

And we couldn’t simply "tap out" at Herne Hill, because it’s not on

the Oyster pay-as-you-go system. So I had to take two oyster cards up to the

Farringdon exit, tap them both out, buy two train tickets with cash at the ticket

machine, and then return to the platform. If I were a tourist, the chances of

my being able to work this out would have been exactly zero.

Of course, had I been stupid enough to fly back to London on a Sunday afternoon,

maybe in order to be able to go to work on Monday morning, I would have been

out of luck, since the last train from Farringdon to Herne Hill on a Sunday

is at 16:40. (The first train from Herne Hill to Farringdon on a Sunday, incidentally,

is at 10:42, arriving 11:02. Clearly no one travels on a Sunday before 10:30

in the morning or after 4:30 in the afternoon.) Actually, if I had been stupid

enough to travel anywhere in London on a Sunday afternoon, I would

have been out of luck. Last Sunday I was at a barbecue in Highgate; even with

a lift from a friend in her car, it took us an hour and a half to get back to

Herne Hill. Nothing seemed to be working: the trains were all delayed (natch),

the tube station we wanted to use was closed for the next few months (the second

time in two days we’d run into that problem, firstly with Regents Park and then

with Lancaster Gate), the Victoria Line was dodgy all month, and seemed to be

completely closed on the Sunday north of Highbury and Islington, the whole northeastern

branch of the Northern Line was out of order, and of course Thameslink

First Capital Connect wasn’t working, it being a Sunday afternoon at all. In

a nutshell, any kind of north-south transportation, be it the Northern Line,

the Victoria Line, or the train, was buggered. It’s like the people in charge

of such things never talk to each other to coordinate things. Actually, they

probably don’t.

Meanwhile, getting around in Germany was almost comically easy. The trains

were all bang on time, fast, and clean. At somewhere like Berlin’s gleaming

new Hauptbahnhof,

the platforms for the inter-city trains sit happily side by side with the platforms

for the Berlin S-Bahn. The ticket machines were intuitive, easy to use, and

would do friendly things like print out your itinerary for you, complete with

which platform to change to. When three of us travelled from Berlin to Oebisfelde,

we didn’t get a small pile of individual tickets for various different trains:

instead, we just got one ticket for the whole journey, covering all three of


Best of all, in Munich (which I think might well be the most civilised city

in the world), Deutsche Bahn actually runs not only trains but bicycles.

DB bikes are

all over town, and when you want to go somewhere you just call the number on

the bike, get a code to unlock it, get on it, and ride away for 5 cents a minute

on the extensive system of bike paths which sit between the pedestrian sidewalk

and the roadway on most Munich streets. When you get to your destination, you

lock the bike, call the number, leave a message saying where the bike is, and

leave the bike for the next person who needs it. It’s like Zipcar,

but for bicycles, and capable of being used much more impulsively. It’s genius,

but I fear it requires a level of civilisation a notch or two above anything

that New York or London is capable of.

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17 Responses to Public transport in London and Germany

  1. Ben says:


    it’s nice that you mention the DB city bikes. However, they are not only in Munich, but in other places, too. Also in Berlin, for instance.

  2. Felix says:

    Yes, but I never tried or used them in Berlin, and I don’t think they have the same level of ubiquity there that they have in Munich. You need a critical mass for these bikes to work: ideally, there should be so many that any bike which isn’t being ridden should be available, and for that anybody walking to their nearest major intersection should be able to reasonably expect to find an available bike there.

  3. Matthew says:

    Very interesting post. And I was happy the other day when the clean and attractive number 4 got me from E 86 to a meeting at the Municipal Building so quickly. Or the way we can now take the 86 bus quickly across Central Park and have access to 3 more train lines.

    From my blog: —–

    These sort of posts lend themselves to pedancy, so apologies, but Hampstead does have an overground station, “Hampstead Heath”. Probably about 10m walk from Hampstead tube. It’s on the Silverlink line which essentially means it goes nowhere you would want to go to from Hampstead, except maybe Camden, but I think it goes down to Richmond in the end (it’s terribly slow and useless).

    I know what you mean about Herne Hill. I have friends in Tulse Hill and that is worse. The Thameslink should be quick, but often isn’t. I usually get the Victoria line to Brixton then a bus, but apparently you say that was iffy too.

  4. Felix says:

    Ah yes, Silverlink. Hadn’t thought of that in over 10 years. My friend Elly, as I recall, tried to use it to commute to Hammersmith from our place in Queen Margaret’s Grove, N1 — very convenient to Dalston Kingsland train station. Problem was that Acton Central is rather less convenient for Hammersmith…

  5. 99 says:

    And people accuse me of being long-winded? Maybe I need to go to the Magician more often and make nice. I remember (vaguely, meaning that I know I was staying there, but don’t know if the route was direct out) taking the train from Hampstead Heath to Milton Keynes, which affirms Matthew’s assertion it goes nowhere worthwhile.

  6. Roger says:

    When you write about stock analysts and Vonage you appreciate some of the practical challenges of their jobs. In contrast, this article is simply classic journalistic whinge and drama.

    The Oyster card was planned before privatisation and there are very good reasons why there are no automatic exit barriers at most main-line (ie not subway) stations. Essentially the number of passengers per station and their physical layout makes it uneconomic. And for Oyster to work effectively, machines would need to be installed at all stations within zones 1-6. (You would then be asking for it to work outside even this zone!) For this reason alone it is unlikely that Oyster’s one-day pricing feature can ever work on the mainline trains as you would like.

    Most people who travel to stations on the main-line actually start on the main line, and so can buy a one-day or longer travelcard. If you are a local and buying a weekly or longer ticket you can buy it at a tube station as well. So your problem only really arises for those few tourists and locals who stay or live in central London and want to visit suburbs which are not on the tube network. Many of them will have lived in London anyway and so will understand the complexity and limitations.

    How about working out the cost of extending the barrier network and then amortising this cost over those passengers who are inconvenienced by the present system? I guess it will be many times the extra cost of not getting all the one-day discount you should get.

    I agree that the fare suystem and machines are difficult for foreigners to understand. But the same can be said for the much simpler system in Berlin, where I recently bought a child ticket by mistake at a machine with no facility to take either notes or foreign credit or debit cards. (The facilities at smaller U-bahn stations are not the same as at the Hauptbahnhof.)

    You can buy a ticket from Stansted to Herne Hill (which then automatically includes cross-London travel) but not at (most?) machines. This is hardly surprising. You have to go to the ticket office, as would most tourists. Or buy it at the counter available for this purpose in the airport before (or in?) the baggage hall. There is an obvious trade-off in machine design between cost, scope and ease-of-use. My usual complaint is that they are not easy enough to use and that there are inordinate delays while tourists try to work out how to use them.

  7. Felix says:

    Roger, you whizzed past this in your explanation, so can you slow down a minute and explain exactly why it is that it’s perfectly easy for one-week or one-month travelcards to be put on an oyster, but that if one-day travelcards were to be put on an oyster then that would involve major architecture at all suburban train stations?

    I can see how extending the prepaid oyster system to the train system might necessitate that architecture, since you don’t know how much to deduct from the card until you’ve tapped out. But a one-day travelcard should present no more difficulty than a one-week travelcard, no?

  8. Roger says:

    The one week and one month cards are issued with a photocard and do not need to record individual journeys. The pay-as-you-go card has to record each journey.

  9. Felix says:

    I’ve already granted you that the pay-as-you-go card might require the architecture you’re talking about. What I’m asking is why you can’t put a one-day travelcard on an Oyster. You seem to be saying that it’s either something about photos or else it’s something about recording individual journeys? And how does the photocard work when the one-week or one-month travelcard is on an Oyster?

    Just to rephrase the question so it’s completely clear: Why can’t I go up to an oyster machine, tap my card, and select “one day travelcard” — thereby allowing me to travel on the trains as well as the buses and the tube?

  10. Roger says:

    The short answer is that at some machines you can buy a one-day travel card with an Oyster card. In any event most machines already allow purchase of a one-day card for cash and, where not, you can go to the ticket office.

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  12. jai says:


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  15. Tom says:


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