Photo: Alexander Rentsch. License: CC.

Berlin’s Secret Underground Police

The German capital's subway is riddled with mysterious, shadowy figures known as the Kontrolleure.


Every city that contains a subway also contains a number of people who would prefer to ride it without paying. The obstacles they face in that pursuit vary from grid to grid, determined by local cash-flow and attitudes. Most metropolitan governments install some variation on the AFC (Automatic Fare Collection) in their underground to ensure payment. Though the efficacy of such electronic boundaries varies with their porosity — New York’s turnstiles invite duckers and jumpers, while Singapore’s Access Control Gates crush both — all-in-all they constitute the most effective way of collecting revenue. Unfortunately, the mass installation of such devices takes a while to pay for itself, especially in cities with large subway grids and sparse populations. This consideration led my fiscally challenged hometown of Berlin to build their prevention effort around a more primitive control system: plain-clothed ticket inspectors, a method inefficient on paper and absurd in practice.

Berliners refer to these inspectors as “controllers” (Kontrolleure). They are not government officials but underpaid mercenaries, employees of a private security contractor, well-known to be a compilation of undesirables recruited from the bottom of the guardian food chain: failed bouncers, aged store detectives, veterans of the GDR’s security services.




The controllers’ main function is to obscure the fact that Berlin’s underground operates on what is essentially an honor system. They can ask you for a ticket; they can ask you to leave the train and follow them to their office and fill out the paperwork incriminating yourself; but running away from them is perfectly legal. But few people want to run away or pretend they don’t speak the controller’s language (both popular evasion techniques). In other words, the system is predicated on the notion that while a majority of the population may not be instinctively law-abiding, a majority of the population wants to be perceived that way. The ticket inspections introduce an element of shame into the honor system.

The problem with these ticket inspections is that the men and women appointed to do it are paid on a commissionary basis, meaning they receive a small bonus for every ticketless individual they catch. This incentive, and their institutionally bruised egos, adds an element of desperation to their pursuits; when their subjects make a run for it, they run, jump, trip and wrestle. While this is bad for public standards of civility, it also makes Berlin’s underground a lot more exciting — especially for children.




To those who engage in it habitually, fare evasion is a sport. By the age of ten, I understood its mathematics: 50 Marks extra allowance meant I had to keep a close eye on every passenger who entered the train. Ticket inspectors, as a rule:

  • rolled in twos.
  • wore plainclothes but not plain clothes.
  • never carried bags.
  • either boarded the subway separately or in unlikely combinations: salafist and old butch, social worker and hells angel, skinhead and Peruvian flutist.




But that system wasn’t perfect, so eventually I learned to run. My best friend J and I had a routine: we pretended not to know each other as they removed us from the train, and when one of us pretended to find his ticket, the other dashed. This became more difficult as we grew older; the controllers assumed, rightly, that we could take more.

When I was 14, a controller kicked my hind leg in full sprint, and I tripped sideways into the tracks. I scrambled up, propelled by the thought of subway rats and the sound of adult Germans screaming down at me, my hand squashed and bloodied, and kept running into the tunnel. According to the story I told my friends later, I emerged triumphantly at the next stop with two broken fingers. In truth, I chickened out when it got too dark and turned back. The chubby inspectors were relieved to see me reemerge. I expected abuse, but instead received an informal apology and a Döner Kebab in return for my silence.




Years later, in 2011, after I’d moved away, Berlin’s transport corporation (BVG) announced a “shift in mentality” and phased out plain-clothed controllers, promising friendlier, more professional ones. “We don’t need to work undercover!” Sigrid Nikutta, its CEO, declared. “We must demonstrate presence.” This was a pragmatic choice given the city’s dependence on tourism and the legacy of red-faced German thugs demanding people’s papers, but from my new home in New York I couldn’t help but feel that Berlin was losing a bit of its character. Luckily, the experiment in civility didn’t last very long. Seeing that uniformed inspectors were only catching half as many fare dodgers (Schwarzfahrer, in German; literally, black drivers), the BVG reversed course, and, starting in 2013, Berlin’s underground mercenaries were given green light to play dress-up again.


Photos by Alexander Rentsch. Image license: CC.