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Berlin’s approach to passenger safety

BVG and Deutsche Bahn security patrol together at certain joint interchanges. This is the U-Bahn area of Alexanderplatz in Berlin’s city centre – with the BVG team displaying their distinctive ‘yellow shoulders’ and DB staff in similarly coloured vests — BVG/Sven Lambert

Germany’s capital is experiencing a boom in passenger numbers – and that brings its own challenges. TAUT explains how municipal operator BVG is proactively working to keep passengers safe.

How do you maintain the security of your passengers on a big city network? This question is a potent one for providers all over the globe and last year we spoke to operators around the world to gauge their responses. In the German capital, where ridership is increasing and the number of tourists has grown significantly in recent years, municipal operator Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe has been putting extra resources into this particular challenge.
Since 2013, an extra EUR5.1m each year has been given towards security.

Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe – known for historical reasons by the initials BVG – has now welcomed a billion passengers in a year on its modes such as the U-Bahn metro, tramway and buses (see Worldwide Review). The total ridership was up from 978m in 2014, as listed in the annual BVG security report. According to that report, the numbers of security staff have risen considerably, too – from 190 in 2008 to 270 by the end of 2014. Of those, roughly 200 are on duty on any given day; and as might be expected, coverage is 24 hours per day, seven days a week. By one measure, daily security ‘output’ rose roughly 20% across the modes between 2013 and 2014. Not all of that is directly provided by BVG staff: in 2014 the operator bought in security services to the tune of around EUR5m from the firm WISAG, which has supplied additional resource since 2012.

Multi-mode city
Whilst BVG’s bright yellow vehicles provide much of Berlin’s public transport, they are not the only things on offer for those with a Berlin travel ticket in their pockets: heavy rail services and the largely overground S-Bahn, which is run by a subsidiary of the national railway Deutsche Bahn (DB), also shift large numbers of people. As with cities such as London, many journeys are multi-modal, with major hubs and zone-based ticketing allowing easy interchange.

A perfect example is Alexanderplatz – overlooked by the famous TV tower that has become a city symbol – which brings together heavy rail (including the double-decker trains that serve Schönefeld airport), S-Bahn, U-Bahn, and outside, tramway and buses. Alexanderplatz in the heart of the former East Berlin and Zoologischer Garten (‘Zoo’) that once performed a similar role for West Berlin are among major stations being given a particular focus in the current strategy.

According to the BVG’s statistics, its networks experienced a rise in offences committed over the period between 2008 and 2014. However, rising usage is one reason this is not the whole story; and with the exceptions of pickpocketing and simple theft, increases are considered to be simply in line with the increase in passenger numbers.

Some offences such as robbery or sexual crime fell over the period; and physical offences against passengers dropped across buses, trams (348 to 432) and U-Bahn (2495 to 2117), while the costs attributed to vandalism tumbled from EUR9.7m to EUR3.9m.

Worse news is that the figures for simple theft all-but doubled from 1363 to 2540 over the same period – and pickpocketing was an even bigger exception. Indeed, the number of cases exploded from 2970 in 2008 to 8066 in 2014. BVG attributes this to the massive rise in tourist visitors over the same period.

Joint strategy
The security strategy for Germany’s biggest municipal transport operator is worked out jointly with the Berlin Senate and the city’s police force. In terms of the security threat level, this is continually assessed not only between these parties, but also the S-Bahn and Germany’s federal police.

Co-operation goes further, with the BVG and Berlin police carrying out joint patrols, and the city’s force maintaining a 24-hour presence within the BVG’s central security operations control centre. Joint operations also take place between the BVG and DB at key interchanges between the two, and there is an agreement that each can operate within each other’s areas, rather than being ‘artificially’ restricted from intervening.

The BVG has a central security operations centre, the Betriebsleitstelle Sicherheit (BLSI), opened in 2000. This undertakes various functions including control of security patrols and of emergency signals on stations, as well as such things as fire alarms and infrared cameras. The BLSI also receives messages under Germany’s KATWARN system – a method of allowing urgent messages to be passed directly to those who need them, via text, e-mail or mobile apps. With the BVG signed up to the system, the operations centre receives messages relevant to the Berlin area.

Something else monitored from the operations centre is an aspect that has perhaps been traditionally less widespread in Germany than other countries: CCTV. By international standards Germany has very strict laws on data protection, and this extends to the use of video cameras. In 2012 the Berlin Parliament agreed to double the allowable time that CCTV recordings could be saved for from 24 to 48 hours; the police can request recordings during that period.

Every BVG U-Bahn train has had CCTV fitted since 2012, a shift from only around 31% in 2009; over the same period the number of trams equipped rose from under 40% to more than 66%. Modern CCTV was fitted to 191 stations in 2011-12, followed by a further 36 by the end of 2015. There has also been a corresponding increase in the number of requests for video data – reaching more than 6000 in 2014, up from under 4000 in 2011.
Despite the Germans’ reputation for fierce guardianship of their privacy, it seems a clear majority of BVG’s customers are in favour of such activity. Some 82% of people surveyed in 2014 on the fitting of cameras to stations thought it was either very good or good – a lower figure than the 84% measured in 2011, but higher than the 75% recorded in late 2008.

Aside from the use of conventional CCTV, all Berlin’s U-Bahn stations are equipped with emergency/information pillars. These allow passengers to connect directly with the security operations centre; these additionally allow operators to see the situation for themselves as striking the call button also activates a video camera of the location.

Operations centre staff also monitor response times to various incidents – in 2014 that ranged on average from 1.9 minutes for having personnel on scene to react to conflict between passengers, to 5.7 minutes in the case of a passenger being taken ill.

Training and passive design
BVG’s approach to security is not only about traditional measures such as patrols and CCTV cameras, however. Drivers, station and security personnel all undergo de-escalation training to help them bring potentially dangerous situations under control. This training is undertaken in the BVG’s own transport academy, which not only gives initial safety training in various areas, but also refresher courses. As well as BVG staff, it is also used to train those from other operators. Neither are staff members the only people to undergo training. As part of its proactive approach, the BVG offers schooling to children aged 5-10 in the safe and independent use of public transport.

Separately, since the 1990s efforts have been directed at making stations more ‘passively’ secure by redesigning their layouts, improving lighting and refurbishment in lighter and more neutral colours.

One other simple thing adopted by BVG now looks like it will become more widespread. The operator has chosen yellow shoulders for the uniforms of its security staff in order to make them readily identifiable; and it says that innovation is now being considered by other transport providers. That means this distinctive feature could become a very visible sign that help is to hand – even if you’re not in the German capital.

For further information see the 2014 BVG report Sicher ankommen: Sicherheitsbericht der Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe 2014, from which the facts and figures in this summary were taken. It can be found (in German) at

TAUT would like to thank the BVG’s Jannes Schwentukowski for his assistance in the preparation of this article.