Simon Calder: Why do 21st-century travellers need tickets?

The man who pays his way

Tickets: we all know how they work. Catching a bus? Buy one on board. Hoping to fly? You need one, electronic or not, before you're allowed near the plane. Trains are a muddle. Usually you buy a ticket in advance or pay dearly on board – either a penalty fare, or something that feels like an on-the-spot fine, such as the £137 fare for a 100-minute hop from London to Macclesfield.

Two notable exceptions: the express links to Britain's busiest airports. When the Gatwick Express was launched in 1984, it was revolutionary. This dedicated non-stop service meant airline passengers between Victoria station in London and Gatwick no longer had to endure cramped and clunky stopping trains, while commuters on the main line south of London could stop grumbling about the overcrowding caused by airline passengers bulging with baggage. Better still, travellers short of time and long on luggage enjoyed the right to buy tickets on board. But this week, the gates have gone up, ending 27 years of barrier-free travel. Five million passengers a year must wearily accept two more hurdles before the plane.

With the benefit of 21st-century technology, travel should be getting easier. But unless you avail yourself of booking in advance, you will need to queue up to buy a small piece of cardboard with printing on it, or you're not getting through the barrier. So you may as well instead use the ordinary Southern Railway service from Victoria to the airport, which takes only one minute longer but saves you 30 per cent on the Gatwick Express fare.

As with culture, cuisine and contending with financial disaster, the rest of Europe does things rather differently.

German rail and underground stations have no barriers: fare-dodging is discouraged by periodic well-organised swoops involving plain-clothed officials. In rural Sweden, they have hit upon the solution of passengers buying tickets from the train driver. And on the northernmost line in Denmark you buy a ticket from a devilish on-board machine. Not only does it demand a complex sequence of button-pressing and money-inserting, but there is the added pressure that the device is fitted with GPS, knows where you got on and looks as if it might get angry if you don't hurry up.

Imagine being allowed to board a plane at Heathrow with neither ticket nor identity check, and paying for the flight while sipping a drink at 30,000 feet. In these security-obsessed days that concept sounds far-fetched. Yet three decades ago, British Airways' domestic Shuttle from Heathrow to Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester allowed just such a "turn-up-and take-off" arrangement.

You could breeze straight from taxi to security check to departure gate with no documentation. As long as you reached the gate 10 minutes before departure, you were allowed on. And you could cut it even finer, recalls former BA terminal manager, Jamie Bowden: "Many of the passengers were regulars. You'd be down at the gate, and someone would call to say 'so-and-so is on his way'. You knew from experience how fast they could sprint, and hold the door open for them."

Passengers picked up a meal as they boarded, because once in flight, cabin crew had their work cut out collecting cash and processing credit cards. But fare-dodging was never a problem.

From North London to the Southern Mediterranean

As you may have heard, "bendy buses" have been expelled from London. These high-volume, easy-access articulated buses were supremely effective queue-busters. What made them so efficient was the array of doors – which also, says Transport for London, facilitated fare-dodging.

The organisation says it expects to save £20,000 a day in fare evasion – a staggering sum that suggests TfL's revenue-protection teams could take some useful lessons from their German counterparts on the gentle art of passenger persuasion.

London's loss is Malta's gain. The island formerly operated a fine fleet of veteran British buses. EU rules on vehicle emissions took them off the road, so the eviction of the bendy bus has proved timely.

The award-winning novelist, Magnus Mills – who also drives a (non-bendy) London bus – returned from a winter break on the Mediterranean isle to report that the old destination blinds are still installed. Befuddled locals aiming for Luqa or Mosta are teased with exotic destinations such as Wood Green and Camden Town.

travel@independent.co.uk

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