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.

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15 Responses to In Praise of the Dutch

  1. Maartje says:

    Not much of a crew on these barges – tends to be just the skipper / owner and his family and sometimes a 2nd person (living in the quarters in the bow) with the skippers quarters being the main ones at the back – usually that is there only house / home base. These guys sail up and down the Rhine and so they bring their car as not every keyside they visit may be frequented by the equivalent of the effective Dutch Railways -;) They have a swing boom crane on board which tends to be strong enough to lift the car off.

  2. Willem says:

    Tim, believe it or not, we have plenty of complaints when it comes to the railway system! The system works but it is stretched to capacity, and the rails, points and safety system are in fact old. There have been two collisions recently, one train having run a red light, with the safety system not kicking in.
    I do agree that Schiphol is a joy to use.
    Enjoy your stay!

  3. Thornavis. says:

    Heathrow not connected to the rail network, you’ve not heard of the Heathrow Express into Paddington then ?

  4. Tim Newman says:

    Heathrow not connected to the rail network, you’ve not heard of the Heathrow Express into Paddington then ?

    That’s just a quicker version of humping it into London on the tube. The Heathrow Express is not part of the national rail system, it’s a single route run completely separately from the national rail system, with its own rather hefty ticket price. It’s very existence is due to Heathrow not being served by the national rail system.

  5. diogenes says:

    Tim

    Excellent points about Schiphol. From there, you can get to Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht, even Maastricht I think, Antwerp, Brussels, Paris etc etc without needing to change trains – or if you do have to change trains, it will be one change at a major station with at least one train every 30 minutes.

    And Breukelen is probably the origin of Brooklyn!

  6. Thornavis. says:

    Not quite what you said but I take your point, the route is separate in that you can only get to Paddington but at least it does run to a main line terminus. There was a plan to extend the line from Waterloo to Staines to Heathrow and provide a link to Reading but it didn’t come to anything due to the difficulties of upgrading the present route which is cursed with multiple level crossings. This is the problem in Britain which you allude to, our old and restricted infrastructure.

  7. Tom says:

    Great article and I’m a great fan of your blog. But I would point out that in Terminal 1 at least (where the BMI and Transaero flight arrives from Moscow), there are ticket machines and people selling tickets. So someone has done a bit of joined up thinking, but, as you say, there is nothing like a massive station giving you immediate access to the entire country. The Heathrow Express was a big step forward of course.

    The bottom line is that when these big decisions were taken, in the 1980s and 90s, the Thatcher goverment was in power, and they consciously wanted to encourage passengers to use cars. They didn’t want to be at the mercy of the train unions, as their Labour predecessors had been.

  8. dearieme says:

    My daughter went off on a jolly to celebrate Her Dutch Majesty’s Day – she too was much impressed by Schipol. And I have to say that in my experience the Dutch railways are superior not only to the British but also to the French and German.

  9. dearieme says:

    But I had better also admit that I have never travelled in such gracious luxury as by First Class on an Italian train.

  10. But even so, the Dutch made sure they didn’t fuck it all up as most countries would have done.

    Go to Belgium. They haven’t fucked it up, precisely – stuff there still generally works – but the trains and roads are nowhere near as nice as in the Netherlands, despite all the same advantages.

    There is also the “Heathrow Connect” service between Heathrow and Paddington, which goes via Hayes and Ealing Broadway, and is a regular stopping train subject to normal fares between Hayes and Paddington, but there is a hefty supplement to go to Heathrow. One can of course take this train one station from Heathrow to Hayes and then change to another train going West.

    When Crossrail is complete, this train will go under London to Liverpool Street, Canary Wharf, and various places to the East of London. It will still probably not be subject to regular fares and will still terminate at Heathrow going west, but an improvement. Of course, what is really needed is that line to Reading. BAA, BA, and transport planners would like this, but there is too much political opposition, which is sort of your point, yes.

    Gatwick is properly connected the National Rail network, of course. Lots of trains going to all sorts of places. Heaven only knows what foreign visitors make of the confused ticketing system, though. There are two different trains to Victoria – the Gatwick Express, and the regular Southern service, which is not notably slower but costs a lot less. Then there are two different services to London Bridge – one from First Capital Connect (Thameslink) and the other from Southern. There are three different tickets you can buy to London Bridge, all with slightly different fares – one for each rail company and one valid on either. Three different railway companies have different ticket offices and ticket machines in the station. Any of them can sell any ticket for any train, but they don’t always want to let you know this. Watching ticket inspectors explain to confused foreigners that they have bought the wrong ticket and forcing them to buy a different one is quite entertaining. (There is no scam in this – a refund is given for the wrong one and the correct one is issued – it is just horrendously confusing).

  11. Tatyana says:

    geezus, Michael, I thought the tube ticketing system is the most confusing (and petty), but that! that is chaos.

    on the other hand, we not only have no connection whatsoever between our 3 airports and national railroad, we don’t have the national railroad!
    well, OK, there is a bus going from JFK to Grand Central, but it’s slower than a tortoise: for half-n-hour it circles around airport, collecting accumulated passengers, and only then it labors for another 30 min through hi’ways to Manhattan. Oh, and you can’t get very far from Grand Central, either. The farthest, I think, is Connecticut. Or Bronx. Either one.
    If you want to go a bit farther, say – to Toledo (that’s Ohio, not exotic Spain), you have to shuffle across town from GC, to Penn Station – and that’s two more transfers on the subway. Enjoy gloriously efficient Gotham…

  12. BearBait says:

    In praise of the cloggies :-) There was a time I never thought I’d see you write something like that.

  13. Tim Newman says:

    Ah, I learned long ago not to equate the Dutch with the career Shellies. ;)

  14. Andrew Duffin says:

    You’d have a similar experience in Sweden, except that it costs more.

    Bus tieket machine in arrivals hall – yup; railway station under terminal – yup; signs all in English – yup; loads of trains into town – absolutely.

    Stockholm is a great city to visit.

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