Simon Calder: The Man Who Doesn't Always Pay His Way

From ticket machine to marching orders in two swift moves

As they led me away, I remembered a line by the writer François Mauriac during the Cold War: "I love Germany so much, I'm glad there are two of them."

Even now the nation is unified, a split personality is still in evidence, not least on German Railways. On this family-friendly rail network, the ticket staff give away tickets to people who do not need them: they hand the under-fives a Kinderfahrkarte (child's ticket). But if you happen to be an over-five and travelling on the network without a ticket, they hand out €40 (£28) fines like confetti - with the alternative, if you have a bit of luck and a foreign passport, of being frogmarched to the ticket office.

Half-an-hour earlier, travel had seemed much easier. A kindly soul rescued me from an apparently hopeless hitching location. I was so pleased to be picked up that I registered no objection to the soundtrack (alleged to be an anarchist punk band, not designed to be played on big speakers in a small Peugeot). The driver dropped me off right beside a small-town German railway station. With dusk and winter converging in a pincer movement, it seemed contrary to continue to hitch. And, look, the next train is due to leave in four minutes.

HAVE YOU ever tried to use a German Railways ticket machine? These fiendishly clever pieces of technology offer tickets between any two of the nation's 5,700 stations at a dozen different fare levels. They are able to baffle the prospective passenger in no fewer than seven languages, including Turkish and a form of English.

While minutes and hours waft away silently on the breeze when you are hitching, seconds tick noisily when a German train is set for an on-time departure. The main north-south "Ha-Fra-Ba" (Hamburg-Frankfurt-Basel) artery was only a dozen miles away, no doubt with a staffed ticket office. Knowingly, I engaged in a travel activity for which the Germans have a handy word - not wanderlust, but schwarzfahrer.

THE INSPECTORS climbed aboard at a tiny halt that appeared to be a cowfield with a platform attached. On British trains, as you may know, a passenger with a ticket irregularity can secure a certain moral high ground by immediately going to see the ticket inspector, and explaining their predicament. So I did.

"We don't issue tickets," one official explained. "Only €40 fines," his colleague added helpfully. I was sent back to my seat, computing that the equivalent of £28 was a penalty fare that surely persuaded regular travellers to make sure they had tickets. Not a bit of it. Germany's apparently orderly society conceals a layer of lawbreakers. In a carriage of 20 travellers, hardly anyone seemed to have gone to the trouble of buying a ticket.

They did not look like people on the margins of respectable society (apart from me, of course), but a cross-section of the population. Just as surprising was the diffidence with which the offenders faced their punishment. There was none of the aggression you sometimes see on British trains; my fellow fare-dodgers sat nonchalantly as the inspectors did their work. The only conclusion is that they never buy tickets, and regard the occasional €40 fine as a fair price to pay for never having to do battle with the ticket machines.

I tried to look casually out of the window at the silver screen of misty scenery doing passable impressions of Narnia, but the action on the train was too compelling. And soon it was my turn. The highly productive inspectors had an efficient system where particulars from every traveller's ausweiss (ID card) were transferred to a specially designed form. But they struggled to translate the data as laid out on a British passport to German bureaucracy, and - oh, look, we're here already. Which is when they marched me off the train, down the steps and along the corridor to the ticket office, with other passengers speculating about the likely nature of my crime.

The officials kept guard while I bought a normal-priced ticket from a human being (and vowed to take a course on operating German ticket machines). They sent me on my way with a smile. It all ended happily - the opposite of François Mauriac's view on old age: "Marvellous, even though it finishes so badly."


Two bizarre events accompanied last weekend's draw for the World Cup finals in Germany next year. The first was announced a couple of days ahead of the draw: British Airways' decision to abandon flights from Heathrow to Cologne and Gatwick to Munich at the end of the winter season.

England's crucial group game, against Sweden, will take place in Cologne on 20 June. Judging by the fares BA is charging to get fans to the final in Berlin and back (a minimum of £650 return), the airline could make a mint just by keeping the route going for three more months. The same applies on the link to Munich, where England may face Brazil in the semi-final.

Equally strange is Sven Goran Eriksson's plan to base his team in Baden-Baden. After enticing everyone from the Roman emperor Caracalla (who still has a spa named after him) to Marlene Dietrich, via Chekhov and Queen Victoria, the elegant and civilised spa town is to host Wayne Rooney and the rest of the England team.

A less appropriate venue is difficult to imagine. And if they don't perform well, expect headlines about early baths and throwing in the towel.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... with this review
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam