In Praise of the Dutch

I’ve just got back from a very short trip to the Netherlands, which reminded me of how things can be run if not managed by utter fuckwits.

I flew into Schiphol airport on the KLM flight from Lagos, arriving at 5:45am.  The KLM plane is miles newer and better than the Air France equivalent from Lagos to Paris, by the way.  And in business class you get one of those little alcohol-filled ceramic Dutch houses which line the shelves of Shell employees the world over.  Immigration in Schiphol took one minute, and my bag arrived in less than five.  And even while I was waiting I was able to buy a train ticket as in a stroke of genius you’d seldom find anywhere else in the world, there were ticket machines in the baggage hall.  You’d never get such joined-up thinking in the UK, for example.  There you’d get the train companies and the airport authorities shrugging their shoulders at one another each saying “It’s nothing to do with me.”  And you’d spend half an hour waiting for your bag, and a further fifteen minutes queueing up for a train ticket.  Not that Heathrow, Britain’s largest airport, is even connected to the national railway network.  You have to hump it into central London on the tube if you want to join up with that.

But the real genius in Schiphol’s design is that the railway station is right under the arrivals hall.  And I mean, right under it.  No traipsing for two miles to the “airport station”, whereupon it is another half a mile to the actual platform.  No, you go down a short escalator and you are right there on the platform.  And there are about 8 platforms, as Schiphol is a mainline station and is not only served by local sprinters but also huge, double-decker intercities connecting you with The Hague and Amsterdam and other major cities right there.  And there appears to be one every few minutes.  All the signs are in English, there are timetables everywhere, and having still been sat on the aircraft at 5:45am I was walking into my hotel two stations away in Amsterdam RAI by 6:35am.  Checking in took less than a minute, and when the desk clerk asked if there was anything else, I said “Yeah, it’s great to be back in Holland: everything works!”

After a quick shower and breakfast I went back to the railway station, armed with a ticket which allows me to travel on any train in the country all day for 48 Euros.  One stop to Amsterdam Zuid, and I’d missed the train to Eindhoven by 3 minutes.  But there was another one coming in 25 minutes, so I bought a coffee and waited.  My train came bang on time, another huge blue and yellow double decker job, and I went up top.  The seats aren’t the most comfortable, but the journey was only 1 hour and 30 minutes, so that wasn’t a problem. Out the window you could see canals, windmills, and lots of flat land.  A major Dutch economic activity seems to be moving large quanties of earth and rock up and down the country on barges.  One thing I noticed about these barges, a lot of them have cars parked on the roof of the living quarter/bridge.  My guess is that these belong to the crew so they can drive to work, move the barge around the country, then drive home when they’re done.  Anyone know?

I didn’t see much of Eindhoven as I jumped straight in a taxi and headed for some industrial estate where I was having a meeting (hence the business class flight, heh heh!).  But it seemed like a nice, quiet, small city.  Although coming from Lagos, where doesn’t?  A few hours later and I was headed up the road to Utrecht for my next meeting, somebody having offered me a lift rather than take the train.  Like the Germans, the Dutch don’t seem to think much of jumping in the car and driving half the length of the country on a whim.  I saw very little of Utrecht, but what I did see was clean and tidy and organised.  I took the train back from Utrecht to Amsterdam, but for some reason the one I was on terminated at some tiny place called Breukelen and I was hoofed off.  Not a problem though, because another train was coming through in 15 minutes, and I was more than a little impressed to find this station in the middle of nowhere had free wi-fi.  Most major airports don’t have free wi-fi, and here was a tiny station in the middle of Holland which did.  Back on the train, and in 20 minutes I was at Amsterdam Zuid and a short hop from my hotel.

The Dutch railway system is run more along the lines of a metro than a national rail network.  You don’t really need to see what time trains arrive, you just turn up and get on the next one.  And almost every other train goes to or through Amsterdam.  Of course, the Dutch have a lot of things in their favour to assist with this: a very small country, only a handful of cities, one national train company, no pesky tunnels restricting train heights, nice straight lines across nice flat land, etc.  But even so, the Dutch made sure they didn’t fuck it all up as most countries would have done.  For sure, the Brits would have conspired to ensure getting from Amsterdam to Eindhoven would have taken three trains, the first being undersized, the second leaving from somewhere near The Hague and costing a fortune unless you booked two months in advance, and the third running via Antwerp and taking as long as the flight into Holland.

So, credit to the Dutch where it’s due: the Netherlands is one of the easiest and most pleasant places to visit.