So I've been building a list over this past year of All the Things the Netherlands Does Well and Those Not So Much. The original intention was to write one Really Big Post on the whole thing, but it occurs to me that there's no reason I have to do that. Instead, I'm going to break it into a series. Today I'll start with one of the things the Dutch do well (sort of): Transit.
In comparison to Canada, the Netherlands is tiny. It's about half the size of New Brunswick and can be traversed by car in a matter of hours. In terms of geographic obstructions, we're talking more about streams and tiny lakes than mountain ranges or rivers. In other words, it's more-or-less perfect terrain for the trains that criss-cross the country and lead into Belgium, Luxenburg and Germany.
The trains are largely commuter rail, but the tracks double for freight outside of rush hour as well. The station across the street from my apartment regularly sees freight trains rip through the station. This can be quite loud, but homes like mine have been constructed with this in mind: close the window and you barely notice.
The commuter trains aren't particularly high-comfort (with the exception of the newest Sprinter trains) but they're a ltitle cleaner than the average SkyTrain or TTC subway. The exception here though is the graffiti. For some reason there are a few assholes that insist on tagging the occasional train car (inside or out). This is cleaned eventually, but most trains have at least a few marks.
The quality of stations ranges from sketchy (like Diemen Zuid), to Shiny and New (like Bijlmer ArenA), but in terms of safety it's all about the same: super safe. The Netherlands is (well -- feels, and based on my own limited research, appears) super-safe... but that's another blog post.
The service, like most things in this country, appears to be at the whim of the workers and their interest in your welfare. I've been late to the airport twice now because my train decided that stopping at Weesp just wasn't in the cards that day. Weesp is a major transfer point to Schiphol airport, roughly between my home and Amsterdam. I've been abandonned at a station well after midnight least once (they don't run after about 1am) and for New Years, rather than running later to handle the late-night traffic, they stopped running as early as 2030h. When I mentioned this to a Dutch coworker, his response was: "Well the train workers need to celebrate too!" -- it's a wonder the police and fire departments don't just go on holiday on Easter... but that's another blog post too.
They use a system here called the OV Chipkaart, an NFC card that you keep in your wallet and swipe at the station before getting on the train and again as you're leaving the station. It carries a balance that is debitted every time you swipe out based on the distance travelled. It's a smart way to run a transit system that both Vancouver and Toronto are likely to see in the near future. London, Seoul and Tokyo have been using such a system for a long time now to considerable success.
But the Dutch are dicks about it. In order to ride the train, your card must have a minimum of €20 on it, a ridiculous sum when you consisder the single-digit minumums required for the aforementioned cities. In addition to that, most of the stations don't use fare gates so it's all too easy to pass right by them without checking out. Suddenly, your €4 journey just cost you €20: you're welcome. Also, as far as I can tell, they actually store the credit balance on the card, so someone with an NFC writer and a little patience can game the system. For a second attempt at such a system, the Dutch get a C- on this one.
But for all the gripes I have with the service and shoddy fare system, the network is just too awesome. I can literally cross the street, step onto a train, and be in Berlin in a few hours. Commuter rail to Amsterdam Centraal, and then hop onto a 400kph ICE express train that shoots across the country and into the next. I can be in the Hague by commuter rail in about an hour and half, or be in Paris by Thalys in 3 hours. Have a craving for Belgian waffles one morning? You can be there in about 2hours.
Just make sure that you go on Saturday... nothing is open on Sunday. But that's another blog post.