More Personell for the Customers, Please!


Typical at a station like the one in Flensburg: Empty ticket counter not in use (left) and ticket machines with a 50% functionality rate (right) Photo taken in May 2010

It is a nightmare of every passenger travelling by train; especially those who commute between towns on a daily basis: A person rushes to the train to catch it, for he has an important meeting with clients at his company- catching it in the last second before the doors close- and not having the time to pick up a ticket at the train station. It is a regio-train and the German railways (a.k.a. Die Bahn or DB) had just installed ticket machines to ensure that everyone is obliged to buy a ticket- only to find that the ticket machine does not work. He panics as he sees the ticket controller come by to check and stamp tickets. As a general rule, ticket controllers also have the right to sell tickets to passengers unable to buy tickets at the station or in the ticket machines, right?

Not this one! The person asks for a ticket only to be asked: “Personal ID, right now!” Why? “You travelled without a ticket and that means 40 Euros for being a stowaway!” You react objectively by saying “Wait a minute! The ticket machine is kaput! How the h*** am I supposed to buy a ticket on this train if the machine does not work?” Then the responses that followed justified that 40 Euros was a necessity to “teach everyone a lesson”- to buy a ticket before boarding the train; whether it is “You ran past me and said ‘s***!’ in the process,” or “You should have bought a ticket at another station,” or my favorite excuse “You should have smelled that you were going to be late and waited for another train, so that you can buy a ticket!” (This is a very raw translation of “Sie hätten es riechen sollen, Ihren Zug zu verpassen und auf den nächsten zu warten!”) Now how is someone supposed to assume that he/she is going to be late and plan ahead of time, let alone explain to the boss why the person is late because of the trains?

One will think that these excuses are made up, but sadly, these are real-life scenarios that I and other passengers have been dealing with ever since the German Railways introduced the concept of having ticket machines do the work for the passengers instead of the personnel themselves in 2008.  7 in 10 passengers have complained about the ticket machines not working and the ticket personnel being snarky at those unfortunate not to buy a ticket before or wanting to buy one shortly after boarding the regio-trains. Before I elaborate further, the regio-trains refer to not only the RB trains which stops at every single train station and stop, even in Timbuktu, whereas the RE (Regio-Express) stops at cities with 10,000 or more inhabitants, whose stations are the main points to get on. Even worse is the fact that one arbitrarily finds a ticket machine on the train. It is not customary to have a ticket machine in a Regio-Express train for it provides cramped space and some areas where they should be installed are reserved for bicycles and baby carriages only. And even then, these spaces are limited. While ticket machines can be found in one out of three Regio-trains (99% in diesel trains), there is only one per train and the functions are questionable. That means, the process of obtaining a ticket is too bureaucratic and the machines are choosy at accepting certain forms of payment. 3 in 4 reject debit cards, leaving many passengers scrambling to muster up the remaining lunch money they have to buy a ticket for their destination.

One would think that if these problems persist and there are more people travelling by train than by car that the DB would think about dollars and sense and hire more personnel to improve its quality of service. After all, the customer is king and their wishes should be respected. But unfortunately, the DB, like many companies, is trying to work for profit and efficiency and not for the benefit of the customer. This includes shortening the time needed to travel from one point to another- including the time needed for passengers to get on and off the trains, focusing on the profitable lines and abandoning the others that might get passengers to their destinations more quickly, having porters and ticket agents on the train to assist in luggage and selling tickets, providing more space for bikes, baby carriages and EVEN ticket machines, and lastly not having enough people with computer knowledge to maintain these machines. While the information age is making service faster and more efficient, there seems to be a loss of attention to the customers and their needs. While the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to many financial institutions and the governments because of their corruptive ways of doing business with clients and the public, it would not be surprising if many disgruntled passengers decide to take their frustration out on DB and occupy their headquarters in Berlin and other important offices in Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg, just to name a few. It is just a question of one incident that will cause passengers to snap and the German networks of ARD and ZDF will be broadcasting the protests as early as January of next year.

More personell for the station and the trains, please! Stations like the one in Flensburg could use it, as with the trains. Photo taken in April 2011

It is time that the DB starts rethinking the way they do business with the customers. The easiest and most viable solution is to have more personnel in the trains, not just to check on the tickets, but also to sell them to those who could not buy them at the station because the ticket machines do not work or are full of passengers wanting to reach their destinations. The fine system should remain in place for those who refuse to buy a ticket and board the train as a stowaway, but should be more objective- not subjective and for the purpose of milking more away from those who can barely afford to buy a ticket. If the board of directors of DB insist that the ticket machines are the most effective way of providing passengers with tickets, then there should be more people with IT experience to ensure that the problems are fixed and the machines are back in service as quickly as possible. We are seeing more and more people studying IT at various universities and technical colleges who are looking for a job after graduation and therefore, that source should be tapped so that they have some experience with computers. Yet having train station personnel at the functioning train stations working in shifts can also improve service and make travelling by train less complicated, even for the commuter dependent on daily train travel.

But until reforms to improve customer service do take place, we will still see passengers disgruntled because of malfunctioning ticket machines and ticket personnel treating them as criminals when in all reality, it is not their fault. Even more alarming is the fact that passengers who use the bike to travel to work from the station may be forced to pay daily fees to have their bikes transported by Regio. The argument is one that I’ll remember a ticket personnel at Flensburg Station saying when I bought a ticket (and was forced to by one for the bike as well) for a day trip to Kiel this past April: “We don’t like bikes on trains! They’re unprofitable!” The Bavarians already introduced that two years ago; it is becoming a norm in the southern part of the country. It could be a reality in a couple years in all of Germany and will force people, like me to reconsider other forms of transportation; especially if the work place is far away.

As for travelling without a ticket, it would not be surprising if the DB, which is partially owned by the German government, will introduce the Flensburg Point System, to use against stowaways, regardless if it was their fault or not. After all, when caught, it is obligatory to show the personnel your driver’s license and ID to report the incident. Why not penalize them with 1-2 Flensburg Points? But before that happens, unless they recently took bribes by the DB and other lobbyists, the judges at the German Supreme Court in Karlsruhe will most likely shoot that proposal down as unconstitutional. If that happens, then perhaps they should remind the DB to respect the people’s rights to be treated fairly, as stated in the Basic Laws of the Federal Republic of Germany. It would be one step in the right direction of improving service, at least….

Mural and clock at Flensburg Station. Photo taken in May 2010