The Hitchhiker’s Guide to… Commuting in Germany??!?!?

Hey there, you gumbooteering crowd. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the mad-cap travels of Arthur Dent, the Englishman who survived the demolition (read: blowing-up) of his home-planet, i.e. the Earth because it needed to give way to a new hyperspace express-bypass route. Anyways, in Douglas Adams’ successful run of novels (the only trilogy ever to comprise at least five novels, and as some claim, six) Dent, formerly working in local radio, is rescued and turned into a galactic hitchhiker. He encounters many strange entities, aliens and civilizations. What’s the point of this you say? Well – I’ve recently been re-reading the tome of Adams’ works – while commuting to work by train. And I thought – well, it’s a bit special after all. What if a prairie dog, a Klingon or say, a Canadian needed to commute in Germany? Would it work out? Wouldn’t it be quite similar for them, to hitching a ride on a flying saucer? How would I put my suggestions in a nutshell – given the fact that even I myself, German by nature, feel a bit alien in our public transport system?
After all, there’s some specialties to observe. Watch and learn, kids. This is how to survive German public transport. Trains especially.

1st Rule: Never expect trains to be on time. This never happens. Quite contrary to the perception that people have of

The S1, the regional train I commute to work with in Duesseldorf Main Station. This is what it looks like when doing overtime.

Germany, things don’t really work. Not to the extent they used to. During my childhood a quarter of a century ago, time tables were exact, Russians (well, Soviets / Commies / Reds) were evil, men were more adventurous, women more beautiful, there were only three Star Wars-movies and trains were on time. The German railway-system used to be a company run by the state. And it’s funny how most people who travel by train every day get nostalgic about those times… Sad but true.

2nd Rule: You wanna talk to someone – talk first. Us Germans, we’re rather contained characters. Not as outgoing as Mediterraneans, Germans are rather reserved. And thus, if you want to start a conversation in the context of travelling with people by train in Germany, a bit of sensitivity is in order. Especially amongst commuters, angry grunts are a likely response if you’re a chatterbox. Choose your counterpart for conversation wisely and don’t rush too headlong into talking with strangers. Allow people to be able to warm-up.

3rd Rule: Do complain (also works as a cold-start for chatting people up). EVERYONE complains about the German railway-system. So why not join in the chant? And you’ll notice that the following quote from Father Ted does ring quite true, sometimes: “To speak in German is to speak in rage.” Only hardened commuters like me tend to have become fatalistic and calm enough (sort of old Ben Kenobi-calm) not to be bothered any more. We’ve seen it all. We’ve been through all scenarios. (Hell, I was even once on a train that went through an exploding petrochemical plant WHILE it exploded – no bloody joke!) We’ve heard every reason German railways can give you for terminating a connection in the middle of nowhere whilst you’re desperately trying to be on time. But most people… well not everyone’s a die-hard commuter and during the past recession (well, whether it’s really past may be subject to debate…) a lot of people only recently switched from their cars to trains. And those proficient enough in English will be glad to be able to complain together with you in two languages.

What is this alien place? Arthur Dent (middle) and Ford Prefect from Betelgeuze meet Marvin the paranoid android. Nevermind Arthur's puzzled look - it's his first ride in a flying saucer. What would your first ride on a German regional train be like?

4th Rule: The dance. Well, more like the choreography of sitting. You need to observe this one STRICTLY. First of all, you never sit with someone, if there’s the usual four-seater arrangement. You always take an empty four seater first. If there aren’t any empty four-seaters available any more, you sit diagonally across from people. Only after that are you entering the stage when you may actually across from someone or next to them. So – the train would have to be rather crowded for this scenario to happen. If you don’t do this exactly according to the book, you will get funny looks.


5th Rule: Make sure you’ve got a ticket. And the correct one. No-one will understand if you don’t. And protesting in a prestigious foreign language like English will only make people think you’re being a smart-ass. Not having a correct or valid ticket might be mistaken as an attempt to overthrow the public order. And you don’t want to leave that impression.

6th Rule: Which leads us to Rule No. 6. Never buy tickets from one of those machines. The automats and terminals selling them even confuse the engineers who designed them. Their only purpose is an elaborate scam to drive everyone stark, utterly, raving mad. No-one understands the menues, no-one in their right mind knows when the money goes into the slot. Don’t buy tickets from the machines. It’ll only make you unhappy.

7th Rule: Never obstruct doors. Even if you’re holding them open for people to still jump aboard the train. You’ll make EVERYONE wish terrible things for you and your family. It’ll be really bad for your karma. And it’ll make the engine-driver of the train put on his most doom-laden voice, and it’ll come over the crackly PA: “BITTE DIE TUEREN FREIGEBEN!” Now that is something chilly. You just don’t wanna hear that. Ever. So spare yourself the embarrassment and don’t obstruct doors. Even if it may mean leaving friends or loved ones behind on the platform of a German train station in the middle of nowhere. The German railways Displaced Persons-department will take good care of them.

8th Rule: Don’t expect trains to wait for you. That is also because they are afraid you might obstruct the doors. Anyways, if you see a train sitting in the station and you know you’re late or just on time – don’t start running towards it. Because THAT will be a clear signal to the driver to shut all the doors, lock them and pull out of the station while you run panting along shouting obscenities he will never hear. It’s one of the few things that still brings some fun into being an engine-driver in Germany (what with measly pay and bad-ass working-schedules and so on, not to mention the complaining passengers). Let ‘em have it. But not at your expense. Think of Sting: A gentleman will walk but never run.

9th Rule: Don’t expect to be able to get any sleep on a German train. People will do anything – and they will be loud.

Well, it's not that arduous to travel as a commuter by train in Germany. But the S1 that I travel on and which connects Solingen and Dortmund via Duesseldorf has also been called "S-India" because it's never on time and ALWAYS overcrowded...

The Turkish great-family consisting of three generations at least will entertain the entire compartment in their native tongue, teenagers will listen to hideous German “ghetto-rap” on their boomboxes, EVERYONE will talk on their cell-phones, and the people who don’t will sigh as audible as they can and roll their eyes. Spack off, discipline and consideration for fellow human beings. Public space in Germany is loud. And trains are no exception. What about the 2nd rule, you say? Well, it was never broken. People create white noise. They don’t necessarily need to talk to one another in order to be able to do so.

10th Rule: If you ask questions like “Which train is this?” or “Is this train bound for Cologne?” don’t expect people to do more than either nod or shake their heads. See rule no. 2. The whole shebang may change if you manage to swing the morose commuters around by actually complaining: “Dammit! They told me this was the train to Hamburg! Now I’m on the train to Nuremberg? That’s just not fair! Those up to no good-bastards from German Railways…” Everyone will cheer for you. Believe me.