Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Trains, Trams, Metros and other stuff: Getting around in the Netherlands, Belgium and Paris

"Too many train pictures!"  If you've ever had this thought, hit the "back" button now!  This blog post is not for you.

But, if you've ever thought, "Train pictures!  Show me more!" then this IS for you!

Here's what I saw and learned during our recent trip.

Amsterdam is like no other place I've ever been.  The center of the city is a flood of people, bikes and trams, in that order.  There are cars, but they are outnumbered by the other traffic.  They also have a new-ish underground and elevated, grade separated Metro system that is faster and goes deeper into the outskirts of the city than the trams.  The underground portion HAS to be below sea level, but that kind of construction hardly bothers the Dutch.  They've been doing it for centuries.

The Metro and tram lines all work together with the regional, intercity and hi-speed train network, all serving the central and south train station, at least.

If you are a citizen, it all works together seamlessly.  You just need an OV-Chipkaart - an RFID based pass - and you can load it up with whatever trip or combo of trips you need.  You can do this easily at station vending machines and pay direct from you Dutch bank account or with a chip-and-pin credit card.

If you are a tourist with a magnetic strip credit card, you have to work a bit harder and find open ticket offices.

The good new about the trams is that the operators sell tickets of all kinds and make change.  There were several options from single ride tickets to tickets good for one or multiple days.  We typically opted for a series of 24 hour passes although we would have been better off doing a single multi-day pass.

The local transit agency, GVB, also operates a fleet of ferries.

Trams in and around Amsterdam:
At Centaal Station

in the 'burbs of Amstelveen

On the main drag on the north side of the "river" near Dam Square.

A Seimens Combino tram

Centraal Station.  Line 5 uses GVB class 11G trams.  Line 16 has a Seimen's Combino.

Busy at all times of day.  Hard to say there are peak and off peak times.

Many stops had decent shelters and electronic "next train" displays which were always right on the money.

Koningsplein area
Me sitting in the "railfan" seat
gauntlet track where street is narrow
Trying to be more "green".  Grass on ROW.

Modern buildings in Amstelveen area

The Metro:
Metro train at right. Tram at left. On shared trackage.  Tram uses low level platform and you validate ticket on board.  Metro uses high level platform and you validate on the platform.

Interior of a metro car.  Nothing fancy.  Often crowded.
Trams are not just for the big cities.  They are well represented in the smaller towns as well.  Often serving as a direct connection from the railway station to the town.

Tram in The Hague.  Tram network reached out to and through surrounding towns.

 Some ferry action:

Arriving full of people on bikes!

Lots of harbor traffic behind Centraal Station


The Dutch have an interesting approach to architecture and it's reflected in their train stations.  Old stuff, they keep old. New stuff looks new.  They go to great lengths to keep the old stuff looking old - to the point of subsidizing renovations to old buildings.  For example, all the stuff in the center of Amsterdam looks, and is, ancient.  Everything in the new area to the south, is crazy modern.   Amsterdam Centraal station was totally renovated and loosk great, complete with train shed.  

Big ol' train shed with intercity EMUs

Cool winged locomotive driver on the top of the shed
The Netherlands operates three classes of passenger trains.  Regional "commuter" style trains, Intercity trains and contract, high speed trains.  The intercity trains connect and run through to neighboring countries, particularly Germany.  I saw quite a few trains sporting DB equipment in Amsterdam.  The rail network is quite extensive and service is very frequent.

Here's some regional train action.  The regional trains work blue, yellow and white paint.

Under the old train shed at Amsterdam Centraal.  Bombardier/Seimens built.

The regional trains had first class compartments.
The only difference was the seats were a different color - orange instead of blue.

1970s vintage equipment

The older equipment took us up to Zanse Schaans.
It is still serviceable and clean

At Amsterdam Zuid
Utilitarian station is good fit for area with lots of crazy modern buildings

A Sprinter goes by while we wait on our train to The Hague

The Netherlands Intercity trains wore blue and yellow.  There were two basic types.  Newer bi-levels and older, single level equipment.  The single level stuff had that weird Dutch turret cab.  Neither had reclining seats like intercity equipment in the US - but seats were otherwise comfortable.  Downstairs level in many cars had lots of space for bikes - the is the Netherlands, after all!

Bi-level EMU in Amsterdam Centraal

Paint scheme commemorating Queen Beatrix

These bilevels were smooth and quiet, particularly on the second deck.

Interior of bi-level, upstairs
Note flat panel destination sign.  Showed speed, temp, route, next stops - the works.  Pretty slick.

Next stop, the airport.

Single level equipment arriving Delft, heading for The Hague

Turret style cab known as "Koploper".
It means "leader" in Dutch, but the sound if ot fits how I feel about the aesthetics of the design!
At The Hague Centraal Station.

Note modern styling of concourse roof and how elevated tram line is nicely integrated into the station.

Interior of older single level equipment.  Seats don't recline but ar comfortable.
Thalys has the high speed franchise between Amsterdam and Paris including some branches to other cities.  They have a fleet of Alstom TGV trains from the middle 1990s that are still in good shape and still plenty speedy.

Ready to launch from Amsterdam

New trains, old train shed
In Brussels Midi.  There are routes that start and end here.

Inside.  Less leg room than an 80 seat Amfleet coach, but more than adequate.

Not quite to top speed here.  We went mile after mile at 187 mph.  At one point, we accelerated from 100 mph at roughly 1 mph/s.  That's some serious HP!  (Or KW for you continental types)

Paris Gare du Nord (North Station).  Two generations of Thalys equipment side by side.  Both fast!

Belgium was quite a bit like the Netherlands in many ways.  They had the same classes of service and routes blanketing the country.  Brussels was quite a bit smaller than Amsterdam and the city transit system was smaller, too.  Unlike the Netherlands, Belgians don't take to bikes nearly as much and the city streets were dominated by cars.

Some transit lines were undergound in the heart of the city and above ground elsewhere.  It reminded me quite a bit of SEPTAs subway-surface lines in Philadelphia.

Line 4, which we used had both high and low level platforms, like the mixed use line in Amsterdam, but the high level portion was not in use.  Planning for the future?  Brussels apparently has converted a few tram lines into fully separate Metro lines in the past.

Brussels fare card system is a hybrid and super-confusing for tourists.  They have MOBIB RFID cards and they have mag stripe paper cards - like the Metro in Washington DC.  You can get a variety of products on each, but figuring out what you want and how to use it is anything but simple.  If you are staying a few days, you can get a multiday paper ticket.  You can also get a 10 ride ticket.  The multiday pass is good for only one person, but the 10 ride can be shared. Both of these have to be validated on board or at a turnstile, depending on the station.  Finding the validation machine on board the trams is not always so easy.  +

Line 4 Metro

Inside Line 4 Metro.  Note two types of fare machined at the end of the car. The left hand, red one is for the MOBIB cards.  The right hand, orange one is for paper tickets.  Got that?

Trams - Brussels and Ghent: 

As in the Netherlands, many of the towns in Belgium have trams lines - often connecting the train station with the surroundings.  We used the tram in Ghent to get to the town center. Bruges had trams, but we didn't need them. Everything was within walking distance.

Trams in Brussels

Outside train station in Ghent

Single unit car - sort of like a modern day PCC car

Intercity Trains:

These were very similar to the Netherlands except these were typically locomotive-hauled trains with bi-level coaches.  The bi-levels were of identical interior design, differing only in some slight details.  The service was fast and frequent and well patronized.  There were two trains from Brussels to the coast every hours, each eight or more cars long.

The ticketing experience was a bit easier than the Netherlands as the conductor could take cash and print a ticket if you boarded where the ticket office was closed.

Siemens Sprinter class HLE 18 locomotive at Bruges
Cousin of new Amtrak locomotives

Interior of bi-level coach

Bi-level at Brussels Central.  The "200" means 200 km/h, perhaps?

Intercity trains were fairly long

Regional/Commuter trains at Ghent


Brussels has three stations in a row, north to south, which are along a rail route directly through the city.  They are named "north", "central, and "south".   We used both the central station and the "south" station.  The southe station is called "Midi". It is colloquial French for "south" because in midday, the sun is in the south. Midi means noon in French.

The Central station is below grade and reminded me of Suburban Station in Philadelphia.  Low ceiling concourse with corridors and stairways down to narrow platforms.  Midi reminded me of a mini-Penn Station NY.  A busy place with a modernized concourse and long confusing passages connecting it to transit lines.  Nothing memorable or pleasing about it, so no pictures other than this:

at one entrance to Central Station

Bruges and Ghent had stations built in the first half of the 20th Century. Both were fairly large, similar to Trenton, NJ in size and scope of operations.  

Bruges.  Built in 1939. Art deco!

History-based Murals near ticket office in Ghent - St. Pieters
Fancy tiled subway concourse under tracks at Ghent - St. Pieters.
Station was built in time for the 1913 World Exposition in Ghent.
This is musee d'Orsay.
It was a train station 100 years ago.
The electrified ROW into this station in 1901 gave AJ Cassatt the idea of Penn Station NY and the electrified tunnels under the Hudson and East Rivers

We used the Metro A LOT.  We also took the RER train out to Versaille and back.  We also walked A LOT.  Many days our pedometers clocked more than 10 miles!

Paris Metro is everything it's cracked up to be.  Clean.  Easy to use.  Good coverage of areas tourists stay and visit.  It's very similar to NY and London in size and scope.  It's actually easier to navigate than NY as each line only goes from and two one place, so you don't have to pay attention to which train you board at the station.  The service is very frequent and the trains are crowed at all hours of the day.

This spotless tile work was at the stop was near our hotel on line 12.

Grabbed this shot before the operator closed his curtain on door window

Patti celebrates at stop near d'Orsay

Typical Metro train.
Line 6 has rubber-tire propulsion

No doubt which direction Montmartre is on Line 12

One of the original station entrances in original condition

Inside Cite station

There are three drawbacks to transit in Paris.  One, is the Metro trains have very low maxiumum speeds.  Typically 25 or 30 mph as the routes are nearly a series of curved track.  There is very little tangent track in between.

This section of the RER-C route is very similar to much of the Metro.

Second is the trains are fairly short and stations closely spaced.   Third, there are no trams in Paris, so you have to hoof it to your final destination.  There are some buses that curiously have trolley-like bells on them, but no trams.  Metro station to station trip times are sacrificed at the alter of frequency and convenience.

Some of the newer equipment appeared to be based on typical tram designs.

One thing they could do without is cloth covering on seats.
It wasn't padded and too often just looked dirty and worn.
This newer line 2 equipment still looks nice, but on many trains it was stained and/or ratty.
Still it works pretty well and is fairly cheap.  10 trip tickets work out to roughly $1.85 each.  Cheaper than just about anywhere in the US and much cheaper than London.

There are some new light rail lines going in along existing rail lines in part.  These appear to function like feeder lines to the RER regional train network and not so much like typical European city tram lines.

RER EMU at Musee d'Orsay station

We rode a train like this for the quick trip out to Versailles.

RER trains have facing pairs of 3 and 2 seating and windows that open.
Parisians are not shy at bumping in to take vacant seats.

One neat feature of the RER lines was the fare and ticketing system.  The Metro used a flat fare, but RER was zoned fares.  RER used and entry/exit turnstile system but the Metro used entrance only.  But, you could buy a single ticket that would get you from anywhere to anywhere on the network.  You could use your flat fare Metro ticket on RER if you stayed within zone 1.  Just scan in and out at the RER turnstiles.  Similarly, you could start on Metro, scan in, then exit, then scan in on RER and scan out at destination. Ticket machines everywhere on Metro would dispense RER tickets.  You just specify origin and destination and how many you want using a thumbwheel and a few buttons or a touchscreen depending on machine vintage.  Stations at popular tourists destinations were even annotated as such to make it even simpler to use.


Europe is trying to increase cross-boarder freight traffic, but riding on passenger trains you often miss the freight.  Here's what I saw.
DB Schenker unit train of high-tech covered hoppers rolls through Amsterdam Centraal Station

Modern road switcher in Bruges

Older diesels on work trains in Bruges

Comparisons and Take-aways for the US:

Thalys high speed trains are great, but they work because they have great local and regional connection options at their station stops.  Far more people use the intercity and regional trains in the Netherlands and Belgium than the high speed trains.    There is little sense putting in high speed links in the US between places that don't have a strong train/transit system/culture already in place.

It would be better to spend money on the subway and light rail systems in our congested cities as well as regional/commuter rail first.  Then connect those dots with "regular speed" intercity service.  Then, finally, lay on the high speed links.  The only place it currently makes sense to advance high speed links in the US is in the northeast.

Regional consolidated ticketing is a good thing.  Getting to/between local transit in Netherlands and Belgium was not intergrated, but in Paris Metro/RER integration was very good.  In the US, we don't even have good local integration.  This is easy and cheap to do compared to building infrastructure.

One reason people ride trains in Europe because fuel is $8.00 a gallon.  Even if your car gets 40 mpg, driving is still pretty pricey.  Fuel in the US will have to get close to that for rail to become practical at prices that come close to covering operating costs.  

People ride trains in Europe because there is high frequency of service.  When there are two trains an hour, you hardly have to glace at a timetable.  You just show up and grab the next one.  It takes a lot of infrastructure to provide service at that level.  There are few places in the US that can even come close.  It is going to cost the US a good bit of money in infrasturcture to emulate Eurpean style of service.

People in Europe ride trains in large number between fairly small cities on "regular speed" (80-100 mph max) trains.  This shows that trains can be a good fit for somewhat smaller markets.  What North Carolina, California, Illinois and Michigan are doing to connect their smaller cities with the bigger ones will likely pay off - if the local transportation options are available in the smaller cities for first/last mile.

People ride transit in large numbers in Paris, Belgium and Amsterdam in part because there are no urban freeways.  Freeways do not penetrate the urban city center.  This is the exact opposite of the US where urban freeways are a primary means of urban mobility. 

Developing a strong transit/rail transportation mobility network in the US is going to take a long time.  It will work out badly if we try to do the expensive, glamorous high speed trains first unless the only goal is to feed the long-haul air network.  

Building transit and regional rail options on a "if you build it, they will come" basis might work, but better would be "you should build it while they come".  There is already a trend toward urban living among young adults in the US.  Stoking the fires of this trend would likely create the environment that would support high speed rail the fastest.  This requires a mindset change for most US transit agencies from "carrier of last resort" to "carrier of choice".

In short, if you want high speed rail, support transit and commuter rail in your city first.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your turn!