Prague transport system celebrates a hundred years of fines on ticketless passengers

Illustrationsfoto: Tomáš Adamec, Archiv des Tschechischen Rundfunks

Prague’s much envied public tram, metro, and bus network is marking a special day this Tuesday with the 100th anniversary of the debut of punitive fines being imposed by ticket controllers. And for the special day, the force of around 150 controllers will be showing a different face to the travelling public with the hand out of small presents rather than the customary fairly stiff fines.

Ticket controller | Photo: Tomáš Adamec,  Czech Radio
July 1, 1914, was a milestone for Prague’s then tram only transport system with the debut of ticket controllers waging the war against freeloading passengers with the aid of punitive fines. Up to that date, passengers with no ticket had only been forced to buy one.

There had been a debate about the level of fines with the original idea to copy the capital of the then Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna, and impose a two crown punishment for offenders. This was eventually toned down to just one crown. The most expensive single tickets at the time cost 30 halers and the cheapest 14 halers.

There were some initial teething troubles with the new system. Special receipts for fines imposed on ticketless passengers had not been printed so they were instead given the already existing paperwork for damage to trams, such as broken windows.

In the following 100 years of fines, the basic work of controllers has not changed that much. They had already ditched uniforms for civilian clothes, backed up by the service badge and a hard hat to help in cases of conflict, 10 years earlier.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
The fines have got a lot stiffer, they now stand at 1500 crowns, but their deterrent value, arguably, seems to have waned. But on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of fines, the Czech capital’s ticket collectors will showing a different side to their character by handing out small calendars commemorating Prague’s public transport history as presents to upright ticket bearing passengers.

Against the background of Tuesday’s celebratory events, controllers can also reassure themselves that their near term future looks fairly safe. The fact is that Prague is apparently facing a surge in ticketless free loading passengers. Prague council bosses say controllers caught an average 24,500 non-paying ticketless passengers a month in the first five months of this year. This compares with the average 18,000 a month last year.

Just short of 125,000 fines were handed out up to the end of May totaling nearly 60 million crowns. But it’s still estimated that the transport authority is still losing out on around 360 million crowns a year because of the freeloaders.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
The transport authority has just carried out a survey of passengers on how to tackle the ticketless travelers. Around 45 percent of respondents called for the reintroduction of turnstiles at metro stations, a move the authority considered a few years ago but then dropped after examining the costs.

The controllers themselves provoked a mixed reaction. Around three out of five said they did useful and necessary work but the remainder said they were troublesome and useless.