BERLIN – Every morning so far in Berlin, I’ve walked down the street to the U-Bahn stop at Samariterstraße. From there, I take the U5 line five stops to my German lesson to the west, and walk the last few hundred metres. In all, the trip takes about 25 minutes.
I also use public transit to go shopping, to meet friends and to explore the city. After all those rides, I’ve naturally begun to compare it to the system I know best: Toronto’s Transit Commission.
Unfortunately, Toronto doesn’t always compare so well.
The biggest difference is the size. Berlin has about 600,000 more people than Toronto and encompasses about 250 more square kilometers, so it’s reasonable to expect there to be more subway lines. But not this many: Berlin has 25 subway and urban rail lines; Toronto has three – four, if you include the Scarborough RT.
That’s 403 kilometres of track in Berlin, compared to Toronto’s 68.3 km.
What this means is that the subway can take you almost anywhere. Like Toronto, a network of street-level tram cars and buses covers much of the rest of town.
When you buy your ticket at the station in Berlin, you can ride on both the largely-underground U-Bahn system as well as the elevated S-Bahn, which runs through the city and into the suburbs. Transferring between the two is seamless: Your fare covers both systems, they share stations and together make up the urban rail network.
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Of course, 25 subway lines means plenty of transfers. It’s typical for a single trip to take two or three different trains, but you get used to it, despite the inconvenience and having to run up and down a lot of station staircases.
There are also elevators for people with suitcases, strollers or wheelchairs.
I will say that Toronto’s trains are nicer. I have yet to see anything like the Toronto Rocket in Berlin. Typically the trains seem older and have bench-style seating. They can get crowded too, although it’s hard for me to get a good idea of that during the summer holiday period. The trains are also very hot in summer due to the lack of air conditioning.
It’s also interesting to note that unlike Toronto, where you need a valid ticket to enter the subway, Berlin runs on the honour system. No one checks your ticket as you board a bus or train. But if an inspector catches you without a valid ticket, it’s a 40-Euro fine (about $58). Although I’ve been good and purchased a monthly pass, one of my classmates was caught without a ticket. Unfortunately, she had paid the fare, she had just forgotten to get the ticket stamped before boarding the train.
I get the impression though that some people never pay and believe they come out ahead even with the occasional fine. It’s hard to tell though, but I have yet to see a ticket inspector.
And another nice thing: the trains run all night. Berlin is known as a party town, and on the weekends, people can still catch the train home at 3 a.m. On weekdays, the system closes around 1 (as in Toronto, night buses are provided).
There are signs on the subway which state that you’re not supposed to consume alcohol on the train, but that rule is widely ignored. Beer is sold on many station platforms, and people often drink it during their trips.
For fun, and to give you a sense of the massive difference in scale, I’ve superimposed a map of Berlin’s U- and S-Bahn systems on top of Toronto below. Even with the S-Bahn lines extending off into Lake Ontario, you can see the vast difference between Berlin’s system (red) and Toronto’s (yellow).