Budapest’s public transport company (BKV) certainly attracts its fair share of criticism. I would venture to say that the majority of this comes from the indigenous population rather than from visitors or foreigners living in the city, though tourists who have run foul of ticket inspectors for whatever reason, have their own stories to tell.
Having shared my life almost exactly between England and Budapest, I feel able and justified to express my own opinion:
It is certainly true that public transport is no longer cheap – I compare it with my first years here when a tram or metro ticket was 1 forint, a bus ticket 1.50 forints (that is, one forint 50 fillér – there were 100 fillér to the forint - the extra to cover the cost of petrol) and a monthly pass 110 forints – this at a time when the state wage was 3,000 HUF. The current price of a monthly pass at 9,400 forints is therefore proportionately higher when taken as a percentage of the current average wage of approximately 130,000 forints.
This may account for a strongly held grudge among many people, that somehow public transport should be free – I have been witness to a number of incidents where strong resentment was voiced at the cost of the pass, and where the traveller stated he had no intention whatsoever of purchasing a ticket, far less of paying the fine he had incurred.
Clearly, this is nonsense. I have yet to hear of such a place where public transport is provided free. The possibilities for avoiding paying for a ticket obviously vary from one place to another. In London there is no easy way of avoiding paying (considerably more) for your tube or bus through the city. The tubes are, for the most part, shabby, claustrophobic and overcrowded, and frequently the seats are covered with empty drink cans and newspapers. At weekends engineering work can add substantially to one’s journey time entailing long waits and diversions.
Public transport in Budapest is presently free for pensioners, including those from other E.U. countries. Having bought a weekly pass for two visitors from England this summer, I was stopped by an inspector – not (as I expected) to check the validity of our tickets, but to ask the age of my companions, explaining that if they were 65 years old we should return to the ticket office and ask for a refund!
Last weekend, by contrast, we were with a friend who lost her ticket, and we had a fairly unpleasant – and totally fruitless – altercation with the inspectors. My annoyance at their refusal to give her the benefit of the doubt, is occasioned by the fact that I see on a daily basis, people who are regular fare-dodgers escaping the 6,000 Forint fine she was forced to pay. Trams and buses are crowded with people who do not buy tickets, but if they are fast enough to run off, big enough to be intimidating, or unwilling to be drawn into any sort of discussion with the inspectors, they are simply permitted to alight at the next stop – where quite obviously they wait for the next tram to continue their journeys. Those – like our friend – who come into none of the aforementioned categories is thus coerced into paying the fine and thereby subsidising those who refuse to pay – along with those of us who buy the ever more expensive monthly pass.
Away from cost, I have to admit to still enjoying the sheer variety of ways I can reach any destination in the city. And I have yet to hear anything but admiration and envy from English visitors who marvel at the frequency at which trams and buses arrive.
I also continue to enjoy my travels on the lesser-used trams – as the number 17 – where we are frequently greeted by the driver with, “A very good morning to you!” as he climbs into his cab at the front. Or the occasional eccentrics – often trolley-bus drivers – who regale their passengers with a running commentary on the weather or the state of the roads.
The strangest journey I had on a trolley-bus was one evening when, after stopping to allow me on, I not only found I was the only passenger, but that the driver drove past every successive stop ignoring the waiting passengers there! I pressed the button to get off just before the terminus – I wondered if he would stop; he did, but the ride remains a mystery.
Maybe the most unusual journey I did was from the Farkasréti cemetery down to Moszkva tér. The tram was covered in garlands of flowers, festooned over the front window and along both sides of the entire length of the vehicle. When we reached Moszkva tér, people were waiting with more flowers in their arms to bestow on the driver. The reason: he was retiring after some thirty years of completing that same run, and both flower sellers outside the cemetery at one end, and his regular passengers at the other, wanted to show their appreciation.