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About U-Bahn tickets

The subway, or U-Bahn in local speak, in Vienna is simply spectacular. For €1,50, you can ride from any point in Vienna to any other point, and the trains come every three or five minutes. It’s wonderfully convenient if you don’t like walking everywhere. The transportation works on the honor system, essentially: you buy a ticket and then stamp it with a little machine at the entry to whatever U-Bahn gate you first pass through, and it’s good for as many transfers as you need for a few hours. Ostensibly, these tickets and their stamps are inspected by someone for legitimacy and fines imposed in its absence, but I’ve never seen it happen.

On the way to Vienna, in the Frankfurt airport, I met a kid my age from Austria who was kind enough to tell me a few things about my destination. The most pertinent tidbit he imparted was that you should never pay for the U-Bahn, because the ticket collectors, when they made their rounds, had no authority to detain you, or even touch you; you could just run away. For the first week or so of my stay, I was banking on that information, but never saw a single U-Bahn official and so never got to try my skill at evading the long arm of the law.

But then, after talking to some of the dorm kids, I got a second version of the story. According to one of the girls, the train stopped in the middle of the tunnel – no escape – and officials came through and checked every passenger’s ticket. She herself got smacked with a €62 fine and what I’m sure were some very stern reprimands. Needless to say, her tale chilled me to the bone, and after a couple more white-knuckle rides, fearing every slow-down was a surprise inspection, I ceased riding the U-Bahn without paying. By the by, hearsay has it that if you don’t have the €62 on you, you’re thrown in jail.

Then I talked to a kid named Clemens who actually lives here, who informed me that neither of the above scenarios actually happen. According to him, two or so years ago the scheme proposed by the kid at the airport was perfectly feasible, and he used it himself regularly. Then he spent a few years travelling – hence his English fluency – and when he came back, found that The Man had started cracking down on people like him. The regulation system currently in use – again, according to him – is a U-Bahn official posted at the exits to the Overworld to check tickets, backed up with an actual police officer to lend him real authority. Youch.

Let’s be honest for a second here: it sucks to pay €1,50 (nearly $2) to take a short ride across town and save yourself fifteen minutes’ walk, but it’s also deliciously convenient, especially when you’re roaring drunk at 12:30, which is when the trains stop running. I’m not sure what enforcement scheme I believe in, but it seems most likely that they employ some combination. According to the unofficial U-Bahn site, plainclothes inspectors patrol the U-Bahn constantly, which is a horrifying, if unsubstantiated, thought. But it doesn’t really matter which scheme is actually in use, since they share one common factor: randomness. With luck, you could ride the U-Bahn on a fairly regular basis without paying and never get caught. According to my good friend Math, if you only get caught once every 41 rides, then you’ve broken even. Hmmm.

Everyone I know in Vienna has their own ploy for taking the trains as cheaply as possible. Most of the dorm kids have a monthly pass (€45), but I don’t ride the train enough to make that worthwhile. My own plan is to pay only for longer trips – those involving more than, say, 8 stops and a transfer – and hope for the best otherwise. According to my cusory calculations made with unfounded assumptions about the frequency of inspections, that plan maximizes my miles per Euro. I’ve also considered buying a ticket and then just never stamping it and carrying it around all the time; when I got caught I could feign ignorance of the system (“Ich bin Auslander! Ich bin Auslander!”). Chances are I’m not the first person to try that.

My flatmate Soren, a German literature grad student – with whom I have a date to see Kill Bill vol. I and II back to back tonight, incidentally – has the most impressive plan I’ve seen thus far. Apparently there’s a website which keeps updated information on which trains were inspected when each day, and he’s been studying it for the last week or so, trying to extract a pattern to the officials’ movements and use it to dodge fares. I’m going to let him try that on his own for a while before embracing it.

In the meantime, pray for slow-witted and slow-footed ticket inspectors for when my luck runs out on that fateful short hop across town. May it never come.

Posted in Musings.

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