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I was on vacation last week in northern Europe, and this included a trip to Amsterdam and its impressive-if-slightly-mystifying transit system. (I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures — Google Images stands ready for you.)

Arrival: Thalys High-Speed Train via Brussels

The high-speed train ride from Brussels was just over an hour and a half, with only two intermediate stops in Antwerp and Rotterdam before arriving at Amsterdam-Centraal. (The train originated at Gare du Nord in Paris.) The line is well-taken care of, and moves quickly and on-schedule, but has some strange issues I’d think they would have worked out.

Platform operations were disorganized — not enough staff unloading, then ticket-checking and re-loading. There is also not nearly enough luggage storage — bags were spilling into the vestibule walking paths in every single car. As a result, each stop took longer than it needed to.

In the city: Amsterdam (GVB) Tram

Amsterdam’s tram (streetcar) network is extensive and mostly simple to use. There are 15 lines, run 7 days a week, with high-frequency (I never waited more than 7 or 8 minutes anywhere) and quasi-late (last trains around 12:45am) operations. They go almost everywhere, and most lines have a terminus at Centraal station, giving you a simple if not entirely convenient transfer point for many trips. All trains had automatic stop announcements (occasionally in English too, at attractions and major transfer points), and all had dynamic signage of some kind. (The newer models had LCD screens showing additional information; older ones had LED matrix displays only showing direction of travel and next stop.) One thing I noted is that the forward-facing sign boards not only had the route number and destination, but a semaphore-like color symbol unique to each route. I’m not entirely sure what they’re for, but it seems like a good idea.

Payment is via RFID card (“OV-chipkaart”, tap on and tap off) and cash on-board. Many (not all) trams had a fare agent on board, sitting in the middle of the carriage selling single cash rides, 24- and 48- hour passes. The day and two-day passes were disposible RFID cards — what a concept! Ticket vending machines, of which the Centraal station has exactly one (and to make it worse, it’s inside the station, away from the boarding area), aren’t in too many places and were not user-friendly. Given you can buy fares on-board from someone other than the driver, it wasn’t a big deal, except that the machines can sell tourist-friendly 72- and 96- hour passes as well, where the on-board fare agents do not.

My experience was mostly good. The system is highly functional during the day, but it has a few things I didn’t care for. Like many European transit systems, carriage doors open only on-demand, and the driver will only dwell for a hot second if no one on the train opens the doors to get off, or if no one on the ground responds fast enough. This left about 10 people rushing for the last train of the night…right as it pulled out of the station.

My biggest problem by far, however, was wayfinding. Maps were not easy to find or understand, and while basic efforts were made at each platform for local-area wayfinding, the only really good system map was the one seemingly posted only inside the trams themselves. This is an issue in Amsterdam, because much of the city is organized in a series of concentric circles thanks to their canal system where cardinal directions have little relevance.

Amsterdam has some rapid transit lines as well, but those mostly serve the outer neighborhoods of the city, with almost no stations in the center. As a result, I never had an opportunity or need to use it.

Getting out: Bus 179 and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport

Our next destination was Munich, which required a plane ride. Our 8:30am flight, however, required a bus ride at 6:00am. The 179 bus runs from the center of the city to the miniature city known as Schiphol Airport. 5 euros per person, every 15 minutes (including overnight) from the city center, the ride took about 35 minutes and drops you at the main Schiphol Plaza, where the entire airport converges. A bus ride, nothing special.

Amsterdam’s airport is one of Europe’s very largest and busiest, but nothing about it makes it a particularly unpleasant place. It’s mostly modern, signage is top-class, and amenities abound. Arts and culture have a notable place, too: the airport has its own public lending library and an annex of the Rijksmuseum. Both are, unfortunately, closed through the end of the year for modernization. Some of the concourses even have open-air rooftop viewing decks.

***

This was my first visit to Amsterdam, and for many reasons other than just a great transport network, I’m totally sold on the place. It’s a truly beautiful city that in many ways reminded me of Seattle. It’s a haul to get there (10 hours flight time nonstop from SeaTac), but well worth your time if you decide to make the trip.

7 Replies to “Transit Field Report: Amsterdam”

  1. Adam, thanks for the post. I risk hijacking, but let me add some info from my time living in Amsterdam 20 years ago, and from occasional informal research.

    1. In all of the “randstad” – the densely populated swath roughly from Amsterdam through Rotterdam – heavy rail (Nederlands Spoorweg) is an integral and important part of transit. For example, you might have been able to get to the airport by rail – if you were within not-too-many-tram-stops of Central Station, for example. I “commuted” to the airport from several different cities. This all is associated with the “compact sprawl” of many densely populated cities and towns, surrounded by farmland and other open land.

    2. Tram / bus service is tap-on AND tap-off because fares are calculated on mileage. But even 20 years ago, there was no on-board cash payment. Tickets were widely available at kiosks, convenience stores, grocery stores, etc.

    3. Bicycles were and are ubiquitous transit, not only point-to-point but to get to train stations. As you probably observed, and as widely reported, there’s a crisis of bicycle parking at Central Station (and elsewhere). Most bicycles used for this purpose 20 years ago were utilitarian – heavy, sturdy, with platforms for kids, groceries, cases of beer….and helmets were rarely used. I’m guessing it’s about the same now.

    4. Perhaps due to the maturity and ubiquity of transit, there was and is much more attention to operating efficiency. Twenty years ago there was a (national) decision to make the rail system operationally self-supporting (ie farebox recovery = 100%). I gather this did not quite happen, but even the attempt says something about approach. And I know that the Amsterdam tram/bus system is planning on 100% farebox recovery within several years; for 2014 it was about 75%.
    The tram/bus system has been partially privatized, too: the city has a contract with a (single) company that operates the network, though the city funds capital projects, and provides a subsidy for operations (as said above, the subsidy will disappear in a few years).

    Finally, I too was and am sold on the Netherlands – though Amsterdam is far from representative of the whole country. I enjoyed just about ever place I spent time there.

    Thanks again for the report – look forward to further transit tourism if you have such planned!

    1. Whoops – now that you mention on-board cash payment, I do recall that I might have had that option 20 years ago, but the discount for off-board ticket purchase was enough that I never did anything else. Not sure the situation today!

    2. You’re dead on with the bicycles — they are everywhere, and if you’re not careful while on foot, they will take you out. Traffic control for bicycles is treated as “suggested’ everywhere other than the very busiest intersections. If there’s a parking problem for the bicycles, I’d say it isn’t confined to Centraal station — bicycles simply locked with a chain through the front wheel and the frame, just…everywhere. Helmets were non-existent, but what struck me was the dual-rider (not tandem) bikes — friends just kinda hitching a ride on a rear platform and an axle post (a la BMX) and going for a ride.

      As for the train to Schiphol, it wasn’t efficient from where we were staying, near Vondelpark. The bus picked us up two blocks from our hotel, and took just about 35 minutes to Schiphol Plaza; the tram ride back to Centraal would have been about 15-20 minutes on its own.

    1. No, I didn’t. We were staying out near the Museumplein and Vondelpark, and if there was a Metro station there, I didn’t see it.

  2. Amsterdam has a complex track pattern that is worthy of a North American system of 100 years ago:
    http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Amsterdam,_Netherlands_Trams_-_Track_Map

    This means that there are dozens of combinations possible in terms of routing and line usage. The NYC Subway . org web site has an explanation of what the symbols mean about 2/3 of the way down their introduction to Amsterdam:
    http://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/Amsterdam,_Netherlands_Trams

    That web site also has 1133 photos of the equipment taken over the years, starting at the bottom of their Amsterdam introduction page. Have at it.

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