Back from Holland – The Train System

Trians have special bike areas. Sometimes the entrance is a wee high, but it beats Canada's ViaRail.
Trians have special bike areas. Sometimes the entrance is a wee high, but it beats Canada's ViaRail.
Trains have special bike areas. Sometimes the entrance is a wee high, but it beats Canada’s ViaRail.

Those who follow me on Twitter (@HansontheBike) got a pretty good impression of what I have been doing the last three weeks. Karen and I were in the Netherlands.  I live in Canada and although on average I go back once a year, it is often for work, which means I can only add a day or two to my trip in the weekend.

A new mixed use square is being built in my hometown in a new area near the station. Retail, higher end houses and likely space for patios I suspect.
A new mixed use square is being built in my hometown in a new area near the station. Retail, higher end housing and likely space for patios I suspect.

We also go to other places in Europe, but we make sure we make a stop over in the Netherlands for 4 to 5 days. However, in all those 17 years I never went back for a proper stay. This year we decided it was time for a three week holiday in The Netherlands.

A proper bike path underneath a railway track. I'd like to see something similar for the railroad underpass at Merivale Road. I am working on it with city staff and councillor Egli.
A proper bike path underneath a railway track. I’d like to see something similar for the railroad underpass at Merivale Road. I am working on it with city staff and councillor Egli.

Figuring out the transportation system

I had to do some preparation, like figuring out the transport system. When I left in 1998, we still bought a ticket for the train, and another one for the bus and subway systems. A few years ago the Netherlands introduced a nationwide transit pass. It has caused a lot of confusion as things are perhaps clear for those who implement it, but not for those who all of a sudden had to use it.

You don't have to pay the 6 extra Euros for foldable bikes: they travel for free. Even unfolded.
You don’t have to pay the 6 extra Euros for foldable bikes: they travel for free. Even unfolded.

Example: there is a personal OV card (OV chipkaart), so I thought that is a great idea to have. But it is not available for people without a Dutch bank account. The solution is an anonymous card, but in order to take the train, it needs to be loaded with at least 20 Euros, even if you go for a 5 Euro ride; with a family of four (each person needs an own card), that adds up. You don’t want to leave Holland with four passes in your pocket with Euros left on it. Also, the anonymous cards expire after a few years. So the one way paper ticket was reinvented after much complaining, but now with an embedded chip.

We'd often sit near our bikes, just in case. I ended up sitting on the stair case going to the second storey in the train.
We’d often sit near our bikes, just in case. I ended up sitting on the stair case going to the second storey in the train.

As the system is comprehensive, you have to check out to calculate your trip. People forget to check out and people forget to claim the money back after the card expires; no doubt you need a Dutch bank account to receive the money.

We blocked the door to the next car, but the conductor didn't mind.
We blocked the door to the next car, but the conductor didn’t mind.

If you don’t have a personal OV chipkaart, you also can not get the temporary lucrative 25 Euro a month ‘dal-uren-kaart’, which gives you, plus three co-travellers 40% discount between 9 am and 4:30 pm and then after 6:30 pm (the off peak hours, or ‘valley hours’ as the Dutch call them). There are lots of options, I found it a bit frustrating to figure everything out, even though I speak Dutch. So I called the Dutch railways with questions. Wrong. I was supposed to call OV Chipkaart. Bummer, you can only call them from Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg. I did find a Twitter account though and communicated through Twitter. That worked fairly well. For the NS (Dutch railways), use @NS_online, for the OV Chipkaart, use @OVchipkaart). It is important to understand that OV Chipkaart organises the cards only (“The product”), the transportation providers like NS and bus companies offer the subscriptions, discounts etc (“The services”)

The HEMA retail chain is an institution in the Netherlands. Originally known mostly for its cheap stuff and smoked sausages, they carved out an interesting niche for themselves. Focused on stuff everyone need and making sure their items are colourful and somewhat funky you'll find them everywhere. Nowadays, you can also download services in your Travel pass at places like HEMA and Albert Heijn. (they only need a secure internet connection for this after all. )
The HEMA retail chain is an institution in the Netherlands. Originally known mostly for its cheap stuff and smoked sausages, they carved out an interesting niche for themselves. Focused on stuff everyone needs and making sure their items are colourful and somewhat funky you’ll find them everywhere. Nowadays, you can also download services in your Travel Pass at places like HEMA and Albert Heijn. (they only need a secure internet connection for this after all. )

But how does the card of my co-traveller ‘know’ that it is travelling on a 40% discount? One has to turn to a machine at the station (where you download your orders into your card) and the co-traveller has to chose the co-travel option. Interestingly, it doesn’t ask for the card of the person who bought the daluren discount card to check if he actually has paid for the option. I guess the railways staff in the train kind of judges the situation.

Krasse Knarren (say seniors) buying bike day passes from the machine that also allows you to download other services. The entire country is teeming with cycling seniors, A very encouraging sight.
Krasse Knarren (Savvy Seniors) buying bike day passes from the machine that also allows you to download other services. The entire country is teeming with cycling seniors, a very encouraging sight.

How about bikes on the train?

Wooden bike troughs in Haarlem
Wooden bike troughs in Haarlem

You can take bikes on the train for 6 Euros a bike for a day pass. The trains seem to have set aside some places for bikes, mostly 3-4 max in one place at the entrance of the train car. You can also take the bike on the subways, but not on buses. Most stations are reasonably equipped with either bike troughs or an elevator. Oddly, the elevators we used were either somewhat gross (was that a puddle of pee?) and just ten cm too short for a convenience ride up (or down). The station in Haarlem (built in 1906-1908 in Art Nouveau Style) had wooden bike troughs; in Breda station the troughs were made of some granite that looked like marble, nicely integrated in the design of the brand new station.

Nicely integrated bike troughs in brand new Breda station in natural stone (or a good copy)
Nicely integrated bike troughs in brand new Breda station in natural stone (or a good copy)
Pit stop at the Albert Heijn (well known grocery store) in the Breda station. Many Dutch bigger stations have small grocery stores stores at the station for the most popular convenience items.
Pit stop at the Albert Heijn (well known grocery store) in the Breda station. Many bigger Dutch stations have small grocery stores at the station for the most popular convenience items. We badly needed ‘gevulde koeken’ of course, smiling to us from the front of the store.

OV Fiets You can also choose for the blue and yellow OV Fiets, a bike share system run by the Dutch railways. A subscription cost 10 euros a year. Renting a bike (one gear only) can be done with that same OV Pass, even with an anonymous pass. The cost per rental (24 hours valid) is only 3.15 Euros, which is really nothing.

OV Fiets in the news. It is so popular, that stations sometimes run out.
OV Fiets in the news. It is so popular, that stations sometimes run out.

Bikes are added and refurbished all the time and are now available at 250 locations. It is mostly designed for that famous last mile, from the train station to your office for example. Note: train stations conveniently stop in city centres. Nothing stops you though to take the bikes for a day to go for a ride through or even outside town.

Great system, once you ‘re inside it

All in all, once you have the system figured out, it is really a fantastic system. The train system in the Netherlands is basically an above ground subway system. You hardly hear the train when you sit inside. Many Intercities are doubledeckers. There was lots of space as it was holiday time (when a couple of million of Dutch are in Southern Europe on holidays). With trains leaving for certain directions  in the entire country 2 to 3 times an hour and often more, you don’t have to plan much, just go to the train station (or check the 9292.nl website and app).

Despite the underground bike storage in Haarlem, there are still perhaps 1500 to 2000 bikes parked in the area directly around the station.
Despite the underground bike storage in Haarlem, there are still perhaps 1500 to 2000 bikes parked in the area directly around the station.

The Intercity system stops at the major cities, the Sprinter covers the stations in between the cities. (hub and spoke system). Many stations are multi modal: there are streetcars pulling in and out, there is a light rail system between The Hague and Rotterdam and buses serving the city and the surrounding villages.

Local mini buses in Oisterwijk from run by Arrive (owned by Deutsche Bahn) connect with the surrounding villages.
Local Mercedes mini buses at Oisterwijk train station run by Arriva (owned by Deutsche Bahn) connect with the surrounding villages.

Of all the trips we made by train, one was 20 minutes late (Light rail into The Hague) and one was 5 minutes late, the rest were on the dot. You have about 2 minutes to get on the train, which is a bit stressful as we found it sometimes hard to get the bike on the train. This is unnecessary though as there is still the person with the whistle who checks if no one is caught between the doors with a dress or a bike.

The mechanical bike parking system is not big enough to store bikes with children's seats, so they are allowed to park in a special area (which was also too small already). This is Haarlem.
The mechanical bike parking system is not big enough to store bikes with children’s seats, so they are allowed to park in a special area (which was also too small already). This is Haarlem.

In combination with the train, we used our bikes all the time. We didn’t spend any time in a car. We stayed in the lovely small town of Haarlem and used the central station there (underground bike parking for 5000, another 2000 above ground) as well as the nearby Heemstede-Aerdenhout station (2000 bikes parked). It is also convenient to have wireless internet access in all trains, so you can catch up while travelling, without purchasing a data plan (but you will miss out of enjoying the landscape).

Station Heemstede Aerdenhout. Apparently Heemstede is in the top 10 of oldest average age of the population. It is also in the top ten of most desirable places to live in the Netherlands.
Station Heemstede Aerdenhout. Apparently Heemstede is in the top 10 of oldest average age of the population. It is also in the top ten of most desirable places to live in the Netherlands.
Rotterdam Train station was totally rebuilt and opened fairly recently. It is absolutely gorgeous. There is a strict policy of no parking at the main square. Underneath the square is bike parking for I believe 5000.
Rotterdam train station is brand new and opened fairly recently. It is absolutely gorgeous. There is a strict policy of no bike parking 0n the main square. Underneath the square is bike parking for I believe 5000.
Entrance to the bike parking at Rotterdam Train station. There are those airport like moving walkways instead of bike troughs.
Entrance to the bike parking at Rotterdam train station. There are those moving walkways (like at airports) instead of bike troughs.

We visited Rotterdam, The Hague (Den Haag), Amsterdam, Breda (and cycled to Tilburg), Berkel and Rodenrijs and the Vecht area. The only bus we took was the bus back to Schiphol airport.

Monitor screens in the bus provide info on the next bus stop and which connections there are from there.
Monitor screens in the bus provide info on the next bus stop and which connections there are from there.

My friends in Holland joked that I now know more than many Dutch do. More about cycling in the Netherlands in my next blogs.

6 Comments

  1. Cycling in the Netherlands is a joy. No-one hurries, women wear the latest fashions (and no compulsory helmets because it is so safe for riders) and the bikes take first place instead of cars. I loved the cycle paths around Zwolle that had their own stop/go lights. Groningen was a lot more relaxed 🙂

    • These are indeed two of the many Dutch cities and towns with excellent bike infrastructure. I noticed that the Dutch have been fairly successful in pushing the car back. Arriving in train stations, which are usually downtown, you enter often very traffic calm zones and you don’t have too much in teractions with cars. The cars that are there, appear to drive fairly slowly, partly due to many smart infrastructure solutions.

    • Thanks Jim, this was a popular post, I got nearly 300 reads within the first week or so. I will add more when I learn more about it. There are definitely advantages when you have a Dutch bank account. For a tourist the easiest option is perhaps the anonymous card, but you need to make sure you are not leaving the country with lots of Euros left on the card. You can even get that money back, but it looks a bit cumbersome. The bigger stations have staffed info desks, but most stations have no staff left anymore. All is run by ‘systems’. All in all, I think it is great: you are being driven by some else, there is Wifi on board and when you arrive, you just bike to your destination for a few km on mostly separate bike tracks.

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