What makes exploring The Netherlands by train such a joy is that its major stations don’t just serve the railway, they are also public-transport interchanges, with tram stops serving multiple routes either right outside their exits, or as at Den Haag Centraal, within the main station building.
It may seems strange that this merits comment, but in British cities not blessed with tram networks, which is most of them, the best that one can hope for when exiting stations, are often bus stops down the road, or out of sight around the corner.
Though my faith in Amsterdam’s public transport network was about to be tested, the plan was take a post-lunch tram back to the station and spend around 30 mins taking some snaps of Amsterdam Centraal, but instead I had to make a dash for the train because I’d got stuck in a tram-jam.
A broken down tram near the station was obviously causing a ripple effect and I was caught up the chaos, but my golden rule of always allowing 30 mins more than you’ll think you’ll ever need to take a train, came to the rescue.
It also led to a new strategy of capturing my images when I first arrive at a station instead of on my return.
I needed to hurry because I had reserved a seat on a Thalys train to Antwerpen, having made a booking on B-Europe; as it allows lucky users of Eurail and Interrail to book mandatory reservations for train travel to and from Belgium online.
Something I hadn’t realised at the time, hence my somewhat frantic dash to the station, was that B-Europe takes the unconventional step of allowing Eurail and InterRail users to refund unused reservations.
One of the myths I’m hoping to shatter with my endeavours, is the assumption that the need to reserve on some European express trains, means that Eurail and InterRail passes are now poor value for money.
In my case for the defence I would argue that the balance only tips against avoiding such trains for long distance journeys, when the rail pass reservation fee is more than €15; and the Thalys trains are one of only a handful of services which fall into this category.
But I’d ignored SMTJ’s well-intentioned advice and paid up for the Thalys when I could have travelled on to Antwerpen on an IC train at no extra cost at all, because the main route between The Netherlands and Belgium is blessed with two services, the Thalys and the IC trains.
Provided not because ‘competition’ is deemed to be necessary, but because doing so is just logical.
Thanks to my eccentric itinerary, the fact that I’d be saving an hour on the journey came close to justifying paying for the reservation fee, but what tipped the balance was the opportunity to experience Dutch high speed rail travel.
The HSL-Zuid provides a salutary reminder that sometimes when embarking on a high speed rail project you need to be careful what you wish for, because more than 10 years after it opened, only the international Eurostar and Thalys services travel on it at more than 270 km/h.
The fast Dutch IC Direct trains between Amsterdam and Rotterdam now use the same line, but they don’t travel at more than 160 km/h.
However, the situation is at last set to improve over the next three years as the Dutch national rail operator NS, has begun constructing its replacement for the ill-fated Fyra trains, which managed to travel on this route for less than two months.
Another myth which SMTJ wants to try and take down is the in-grained perception in the British media that the railways of England, Scotland and Wales largely deserve derision.
The justification for this partially being that they’re so much worse than the marvellous railways that our continental neighbours are able to enjoy.
Highlighting the many positives of taking the train is clearly the best means of turning this around, but a contributory factor also needs to be the recognition that other European railway systems are not immune to the very occasional farcical failure; and the sorry saga of the coming and going of the Fyra trains meets that criteria, though they now seem happier back home in Italy.
Aside from the time-saving, I wanted to research the experience of travelling by a Thalys train service, but there’s now little point in describing this particular journey.
Because, though it may not seem like it in the moment, a goal of most train operators is to evidently improve their service and since I made this journey, the interiors of the Thalys trains that seemed dark and tired at the time have now been refurbished.
What hasn’t changed since I made this trip is the glory of Antwerpen-Central station.
The full extent of the hyperbole that I can express about this station can be explored here, but what’s worth re-iterating, in the context of this description of my travels, is that an often looked plus of using a rail pass is the ability it can provide to stop off somewhere on route to a final destination, if only for an hour or two.
When using a rail pass to travel between The Netherlands and Belgium on the IC trains, not only you can avoid having to make a reservation on the Thalys trains, you can hop off these trains in Antwerpen and carry on to your final destination in the evening.
If fantastic architecture is something that you find even vaguely inspiring, try not to ever pass through Antwerpen-Central without getting off the train, it’s a building that you need to take in.
Three hours later, I was also experiencing one of Antwerpen- Central’s chief rivals for Europe’s ultimate station honours when I stepped off the train at Liege-Guillemens.
For all modern architecture addicts the ultimate rail pass day trip has to be Koln hbf → Arnhem Central → Den Haag Centraal → Rotterdam Centraal → Antwerpen Central → Bruxelles-Nord* → Liege-Guilliemens → Koln Hbf.
None of the journeys between each station will take more than two hours, so you can tick off all of these iconic structures in a single day.
(*The glorious refurbishment of this station has only recently been completed, when I was last there it was still a building site).
I’d been able to stop off on route back to Koln in Liege because I’d exploited one of the many apparently illogical anomalies, which can occur when travelling around Europe by train.
ICE and Thalys trains operate at the same speed on the Bruxelles – Koln via Liege high speed route and in my humble opinion the ICE trains provide the more comfortable journey.
For rail pass users travelling on an international ICE train is no different to travelling on these trains within Germany, so seat reservations are optional because whenever DB is operating a train, it provides a universal reservation policy, regardless of where the train is going.
But French national operator, SNCF applies a must reserve rule on its express trains and it is part of the consortium that operates the Thalys trains.
This no doubt influenced the fact that rail pass users have to pay a comparatively expensive fee to travel on the Thaly trains, particularly as the additional cost of taking an ICE train is €0.
I advocate that some rail pass reservation fees are worth paying, but the Thalys reservation between Belgium and Germany definitely isn’t one of them.
I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.
This is one of more than 100 train travel guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.