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Controllers out of control

Gruff and even corrupt and violent... Right here at the heart of “ordentlich” Germany, plainclothes ticket inspectors enforce law and order with mobbish zeal on public transportation. Who are these people, and how do they get away with it?

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Illustration by Agata Sasiuk

Scruffy-looking, gruff, even corrupt and violent… Right here at the heart of “ordentlich” Germany, plainclothes ticket inspectors enforce law and order with mobbish zeal on public transportation. Who are these people, and how do they get away with such impunity?

Is’ mir egal…” Literally, “I don’t care.” It’s the slightly tired slogan that has come to define the attitude of Berlin’s ticket inspectors, as first featured in a 2015 viral video for the BVG. The late comedian Kazim Akboga appears dressed as a smartly uniformed inspector, checking tickets and rapping about his indifference for the unorthodox passengers that frequent Berlin’s transport system. It’s an endearing scene, but for anyone who has spent time on the U-Bahn, the message doesn’t exactly ring true. Far from the rapping high-jinks and spotless uniforms in the ad, the reality of having your ticket checked generally involves several bruisers sliding into your wagon incognito, waiting for the doors to lock you in before brusquely demanding to see your ticket. And it’s not just the scruffy jeans and ubiquitous bomber jackets that make them stand out. The behaviour of the Hauptstadt’s “undercover” controllers has become a regular conversation piece among Berlin locals and its visitors alike.  Tales of “discounted” fines, outright bribery, embezzlement, even assault abound from the city’s platforms. 

The conversation went viral on November 17, when a BVG ticket inspector was caught on camera punching American musician Infidelix – real name Brian Rodecker – in the face. The Texan rapper, a veteran of the Berlin street music scene with several facial tattoos, entered into a scuffle with five controllers at Warschauer Straße station after helping his friend evade a fine for Schwarzfahren (ticket dodging). As a legally questionable punishment, the inspectors confiscated Rodecker’s monthly ticket. After trying to persuade the inspectors to return it, the rapper snapped, and slapped a ticket machine out of one an inspector’s hand. He was subsequently pinned to a bench, held in a headlock and punched at least twice in the head by one of the controllers. Several bystanders filmed the assault on their mobile phone, and after Rodecker posted the footage on Facebook, the video collected more than 70,000 hits in less than a week. With the street artist an internet sensation in his own right (one of his freestyle raps has over 5.7 million views on YouTube), the story blew up in the German media. The BVG, quick to nip bad press in the bud, summarily suspended the controller, and at a later date, he was formally dismissed.

The incident could be seen as a testament to the BVG’s speedy response in disciplining their more wayward employees. But the question hangs in the air: Who are these plainclothes ticket inspectors? What do they get up to under the seemingly watchful eyes of Berlin’s main transport companies?  And why, amidst a long list of alternative methods of ticket inspection to choose from, does Berlin still insist on using the so-called undercover controllers?


If Rodecker’s story hints at a certain lawlessness among controllers, understanding who actually employs them gives you an idea of why many ticket inspectors aren’t concerned about protecting the company’s image. In spite of the fact that the BVG promotes their controllers as being in-house workers, the truth is that around two-thirds of their ticket inspectors (80 of 120) wear plain clothes, and all of those plainclothes inspectors are outsourced from private security firms. Those same firms also supply the S-Bahn, a separate company and a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, with all 72-80 of its inspectors. Uwe Hiksch – an initiator of the TicketTeilen campaign, which pushes for a more affordable public transit system in Berlin – has estimated that some 200 controllers are on the job over the whole network on any given day. According to him, they are often poorly trained and badly paid, with little motivation to identify with the public service they’re supposed to represent. The BVG confirmed that their contractors were only obliged to pay €8.84 per hour, the legal minimum wage in Germany, and that recruiting and managing contracted controllers was mostly left to the discretion of the individual companies. “Our contractors are in charge of hiring, disciplining and firing their employees,” explained BVG spokesperson Jannes Schwentuchowski. 

When asked why the company uses so few of their own uniformed inspectors, Schwentuchowski offered a characteristically evasive answer: “Having ticket inspectors in civilian clothes prevents passengers without a ticket from leaving the train and thus evading control.” It also points to the BVG’s arguable choice to rely more on punishment (collecting fines) than prevention (making travellers actually pay for their transportation). Catching dodgers seems to top their agenda. “The BVG alone loses about €20 million a year because of Schwarzfahren,” stresses Schwentuchowski.  There was an attempt to move away from this repressive system when, in 2011, BVG CEO Sigrid Nikutta pushed to replace the plainclothes controllers with uniformed checkers. Some were BVG employees; others were contracted.  Unsurprisingly the numbers of caught Schwarzfahrer sharply declined, dropping from around 325,000 in 2010 to some 156,000 within the space of two years. Perhaps there was a newfound sense of responsibility among Berliners deterred by the sight of controllers, or the uniformed inspectors weren’t as effective at catching offenders. Either way, the experiment was promptly deemed a failure and the company reverted to their good old ways, even bumping up the number of undercover controllers from 70 to between 120-140 in 2013.

One of the companies to profit the most from the decision was WISAG. A major player in the German security industry, the Frankfurt-based company received their first contract with the BVG in 2012 and currently provides 68 of the 80 subcontracted controllers (the others, sourced from smaller security firms, mostly work on the bus and tram system) as well as many of those working on the S-Bahn. They employed Rodecker’s attacker, and despite recent pressure on the company to tackle discipline issues among their staff, business is booming. WISAG made a turnover of €199 million in 2016.  Part of this was due to their work in providing security during the height of the refugee crisis, but a percentage of this turnover comes from the €20-30 million the BVG is estimated to spend on controlling each year, in addition to the S-Bahn’s contract with the company.


In 2016, the BVG checked almost five million tickets and recorded a total of 286,748 cases of ticket-dodgers who were caught and fined. Some 50 percent of Schwarzfahrer didn’t pay the penalty. On the S-Bahn, it’s even worse:  the company disclosed that some 60 percent of fines went unpaid between 2014-16. Failing to recoup on over half of your outstanding fines is poor business by any standards. But why are there such low returns? According to Hiksch, many of those who don’t pay simply can’t afford to. After three unpaid fines, they’re brought to court. In Berlin alone, there are apparently 50,000 such cases; Hiksch estimates that between 200 and 300 are currently sitting in Berlin’s prisons. Tourists living abroad make up another chunk of the delinquent payers. A report from 2015, suggested that unpaid fines in the S-Bahn were mostly due to the fact that “a valid address could not be determined”. Either locals are giving fake address or, as testimony from a former controller suggests, there is a more damning reason: deliberately falsified addresses by inspectors who pocket the cash for themselves.


“I saw it with my own eyes, and lots of people are still doing it,” says “Sven”, a 37-year-old former WISAG employee who agreed to speak under the condition of anonymity. On starting work as an S-Bahn controller in 2015, he says he was startled to find out that “around 80 to 90 percent” of his colleagues were embezzling money during their collections. They would target “tourists, and people who couldn’t speak German so well”, demanding they pay the fine in cash right then and there. To avoid arousing suspicion, many would write up a false name and address and tick off the fine as ‘unpaid’ in the ticket machine. “And then it is over, you know, finished so to speak… they have no evidence.”

In fact, tales of on-the-spot settlements in Berlin are many. “When I explained I didn’t have the money on me, they just asked me how much I had in my wallet – and took my last €15!” recalls Carina, a French expat who was caught without a ticket on the U2 at the Senefelderplatz station on a Friday evening last February. “For an explanation, they said it was Feierabend and that they were too tired to bother with such ‘crap’. To be honest, I didn’t complain. It was a lot cheaper than the €60 I was supposed to pay.”

According to Sven, controllers could make up to €400 a day extra through such methods.  This is on top of the monthly bonus that Sven could potentially receive at the time for apprehending a certain number of Schwarzfahrer per day. “Every day you would need to catch 20 people to look like you were doing a clean job… and then you got €450 a month extra.”

The S-Bahn and WISAG would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a quota system. Some of Sven’s observations, however, were affirmed by a federal police investigation in January 2017, when five S-Bahn ticket controllers, all WISAG employees, were accused of targeting tourists without writing up a proper ticket. Like Infedelix’s attacker, the controllers were quickly suspended and later dismissed. In a press release, S-Bahn Berlin press spokesperson Ingo Priegnitz stated that the company “does not tolerate any criminal machinations from our own employees or employees from contracted companies.”

But what is WISAG doing to tackle corruption, and what sort of people are they hiring? According to WISAG spokesperson Tamara Schreiber, the security company observes a strict recruiting policy. Applicants need to present a police clearance certificate and pass an examination on security knowledge from the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce.  Next, they must complete a four-week training course and an “in-depth interview”. Schreiber adds that controllers are “instructed and trained to respond in a de-escalating manner” when under duress. But she concludes: “Of course, we cannot see inside their heads.” Since the embezzlement case in January, and with their lucrative contract with the BVG and S-Bahn at stake, WISAG has apparently been clamping down with more “security checks” on their employees. Meanwhile, Berlin’s transport companies have said they are carrying out their own “anonymous quality control” inspections.


With corruption and assault cases made public in the media, you’d expect the BVG and Deutsche Bahn to be under pressure to bring some Ordnung to the tracks. Several disciplinary measures are currently underway, including charging their subcontractors monetary penalties for controllers who show visible tattoos (€50) or operate without one of the two forms of identification they need to carry (€200). Perhaps with lingering worries surrounding embezzlement, the BVG can now reportedly fine security companies when controllers “intentionally” enter wrong data into their ticket machines. And contractors apparently now reward controllers not for numbers of Schwarzfahrer caught but for “good work”, including a low number of complaints or mistakes made over time.

But the BVG’s main response has been to invest… in PR. The company reportedly pays out €3.5 million on marketing and advertising every year, with €500,000 going to social media alone. In the wake of “Is’ mir  egal” and other stunts pulled by the Weil wir dich lieben campaign, the company gained an additional 18,500 ticket subscribers in 2016, and their public image has significantly improved over the past two years.

Meanwhile, though, BVG drivers are still subjected to austerity and stories of rogue controllers still abound. Clearly PR won’t cure all ills. What about a complete overhaul of the system?

Even if it was possible, introducing a barrier system for the BVG would be extremely expensive… there are no plans to move in that direction in the near future.

“Spend the damn €10 million one time to put in goddamn barriers like in every other country!” suggests Rodecker, who has gone from rapping outside Warschauer Straße to playing to thousands at Columbiahalle since he was assaulted. The bill might be slightly higher than that, but it’s a reasonable suggestion… quickly dismissed by BVG’s Schwentuchowski.  “Even if it was possible from an engineering perspective, it would still be extremely expensive. Berlin’s underground system is over 115 years old. [The] introduction of a barrier system would be extremely challenging, considering such issues as safety in case of emergency, access for those with special mobility needs, buildings with historical protection status… There are no plans to move in that direction in the near future.” Financial concerns seem to be the main cynical calculation supporting the flawed system: by outsourcing to private security firms, Berlin’s transport companies are able to save a substantial amount of money, cutting back on the costs of providing medical benefits, retirement plans, and decent salaries to their employees. And they can pass the buck when it comes to potentially damaging lawsuits. 

A more radical solution would be to fulfil TicketTeilen’s ultimate campaign demand: to follow in the footsteps of Tallinn, Estonia by making transport free for all Berlin residents. This would be welcomed by many, especially since the cost of a single ticket in the Hauptstadt, currently €2.80, is surprisingly high given the city’s lingering reputation as inexpensive. But with the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) claiming that free public transport would be too much of a finacial strain on the German taxpayer, and Berlin’s transport companies stuck in their ways, it will likely be a while before ticketless travelling becomes the norm.

So for the time being, expect undercover controllers to remain with us, moving unobserved through Berlin’s train network, rubbing shoulders with unknowing passengers while patiently waiting for their next prey. If you’re lucky, they’ll give you a discount!