zaterdag 8 juni 2013

Dutch railways and cycling: a happy marriage

Dedicated to Quezzzt, train driver, do-it-all veloteur and former petrol head.

This post is part of a series on why the Dutch cycle - and others don't. Earlier posts can be found via the top menu. To my surprise, my last post on Dutch cycling and grocery shopping hasn't been read so much. Maybe it was too long? I think it's quite an essential story, as it is a solid proof of my ' The Netherlands as a Lillyput country with bikes as a Lillyput vehicle'-hypothesis.

NS - Nederlandse Spoorwegen. The largest railway company in The Netherlands by far, owned by the Dutch state and from 1938-1994 railway monopolist. On the main railway network, it still has its monopoly.

There is definitely something going on between bicycles and trains in The Netherlands. Just Google 'fiets station' (bicycle railway station) and this is what you get:
Dutch train stations and bicycles: it's a happy marriage. This kind of pictures goes on and on, page after page...

In contrast to cars, buses, mopeds or subways, the train is not a competitor of the bicycle, but its strongest ally. If you have a long distance travel in mind, but don't have a car, or don't want to use it, one can cycle to the train station, dump your bike in front of it, and jump onto the train. All other modes of transportation are competing (unless you put your bike on the back of a car...anything can be done of course).

But...the train has to be something serious and useful then. And that's exactly what it is in The Netherlands (Quezzzt, you're gonna love this part). The NS (and the Dutch state made them) has promoted cycling because:
  1. Railway stations are always nearby
  2. Trains run at the highest frequency in the world (with Japan)
  3. Trains run as punctual as the Swiss (and nearly as punctual as in Japan)  
  4. It's an easy to understand network, with easy to understand schedules
Then there is a whole series of aspects a train system should comply with, but that I'm not going to discuss. The train should be cheap, clean, safe, etc. The Dutch system does comply decently to all these aspects.

First of all, a train station has to be close enough to your home to be within cycling distance - welcome to Lillyput country. What's close enough? In contrast to grocery shopping, people are willing to bike a bit further (but only a little bit) to a train station, as it concerns long distance, time-consuming travelling anyway. And close it is in The Netherlands: 2 out of 3 people live within 5km from a railway station. The average distance is 5.1km (CBS 2011). Perfectly within cycling range.

Aantal kilometer tot dichtstbijzijnde station
Mean distance to nearest railway station in The Netherlands.
(CBS 2011).

Verplaatsingen per fiets naar afstand, 2007
The lenght of cycling trips in The Netherlands, pretty short in Lillyput country. A distance of 5km from home to railway station is ideal for cycling. This is the 3rd time I use this graph: I'll rub it in! (CBS 2007).

But a short distance to a train station isn't enough. The entire railway system has to be close to perfection. Otherwise, the bicycle-train combo cannot compete against cars. So, the Dutch have ensured that, via the Dutch state, the NS run their trains on a schedule like a Swiss clock on steroids.

It starts with a beautifully compact system, which fits in a single picture, pretty similar to the London Underground or the Metro in Paris:

The Dutch railway map according to I like this style (London underground style). Easy to understand.

The basics of this design beauty is from the 19th century, but it continuously improved over the yesrs. What a difference with the German, the French or the UK system, which all are too complex to get any basic understanding. This is partially because the countries are too big and partially because they simply made a mess out of it. The UK system is hilarious on that aspect. If one tries to find a map of the full set of UK railway stations, one can find this. I'm not going to put the picture on my blog, because it's loading for ages, but the text is utterly funny and states:

There are a few data issues, mainly with new stations, and stations that have recently moved from National Rail to TFL
Please be patient - there are over 3,000 railway stations to load and place on the map, so they may take a few mins to appear

In short, there are countless train stations in the many, that some of them spontaneously disappear, whereas others are being built, but nobody knows about it. Good luck planning your trip.

What a contrast to the NS. Already since 1970 until the end of the 20th century, the NS ran a strict and intensified schedule of 2 Intercities and 2 slow trains per hour, from ~06:00 in the morning until ~01:00 at night. And they did so on practically every track. They did? Yes, past tense, because almost 10 years ago, they squeezed an extra set of Intercities into the schedule: 4 Intercities and 2 slow trains, 6 trains per hour, every 10 min a train to every important destination. This makes the Dutch railways the most densely operated system in Europe, and with the Japanese network, the most dense in the world.

But also, it's ticking like a Swiss clock. There was always exactly 30 min between the Intercities, 15 min nowadays. The same with the slow trains. That is incredibly convenenient. I still know the departure times of the important trains in my life according to the old schedule, eventhough it's 10, or even 22 years ago. With xx any time between 06 in the morning and 00 at night, it was from the top of my head (this is just an example, but it works like this for the entire system and it does so already for ages):

Utrecht - Amersfoort: xx:22 and xx:52
Amersfoort - Utrecht: xx:28 and xx:58
Utrecht - Leiden: xx:07 and xx:37
Leiden - Utrecht: xx:08 and xx:38

Great fun, such schedule, but do those Dutch trains actually run on time? Well, for almost 95% of the trains, it does:

The Dutch railways, a swiss clock on steroids. The Railway network occupation versus punctuality for several EU countries.
 y-axis: punctuality in % (trains with less than 5min delay).
x-axis: network occupation in train km / railway km (x 1000).
These are 10 years old data. In 2011, a new punctuality record was set: 94.9% for the Dutch railways, comparable to CH, but with higher occupation. Quite an achievement.

The number of comments as soon as NS trains do not meet their punctuality targets is unbelievable (I always joined those howling wolves when I was still travelling by train. Nowadays, I don't care anymore). It's often getting close to dismissal of the NS managing director or even endangering the position of the minister of transport. This type of complaining might be seen as bad Dutch culture, but it did produce a pretty good railway system: sheep turn into wolves to ensure they get what they want.

My own experience with foreign railway systems is limited and outdated (80-90ies), but pretty bad. I do love the French high speed TGV, but it only ran a few times a day per destination, at inunderstandable intervals. On top of that, the French are notoriously infamous for their railway strikes. The regular French trains tended to stop for about an hour at each train station. The British 70ies high speed diesels go fast, but frequencies were amazingly low, like twice a day from London to Wales. I don't understand the Belgian railways. Railway stations were extremely dirty, even (or especially) in Brussels. They claim their trains run decently on time (see figure above), but in the 80-90ies, my experience was that they were never on time and sometimes there was no train at all (local trains), for the entire day (they were supposed to run)! In all these countries, the bicycle-train model will not work to the same extent as in The Netherlands. Not only because the cycling is more difficult, but also because the railway system is simply not good enough. It should be competitive with the top 3 rails in the world: Japan, Switzerland and The Netherlands.


We discussed four aspects of the Dutch railways (nearby, high frequency, on time, easy) making it amongst the best railway systems in the world. Therefore, the Dutch bicycle-train combo does compete strongly with cars:
  1. For students and the poor, it's good and economical, as it can bring you almost everywhere in The Netherlands.
  2. Bike-train travel times might not be faster than cars on most tracks, but it's more convenient on several aspects. One can relax, read, sleep or work in the train, but not behind the wheel of a car.
  3. No frustrating traffic jams. Traffic jams are a serious problem in The Netherlands, the 2nd most traffic congested country in Europe. Belgium is 1st. This pushes people into the train, but only if the train is any good.
  4. By their 19th century design, trains bring you directly into the very heart of a city center. No troubles with parking your car. Easy if you want to visit another town for a museum, theatre, restaurant, shopping etc.
  5. The Dutch city center is always close to any Lillyput city boundary. So, at your destination, one just grabs a 2nd bike, and one can cycle easily to e.g., work. Bike-train-bike travel.
All in all, bike-train(-bike) travel can have a big advantage over the car for many trips and for many Dutch but the true petrol heads. This way, the NS has boosted and promoted cycling in The Netherlands to unforeseen heights. Parking your bike in front of a train station was notoriously difficult for years...because there were so many other bikes already. In rush hours, the high number of folding bikes in trains simply causes dangerous situations...doors cannot close, people falling...the entire system couldn't cope with the number of cyclists around train stations. Authorities are continuously too late with implementing improvements.

And cyclist's safety? Finally, I can give something to David Hembrow. Yes, that helps for commuters (not for students) on a 5km track to and from a railway station, and especially around the train station inself. But the lobby for that came and still comes from a large part from the NS and the Dutch state. There was and is large political interest in getting people into the train. Also, The Dutch are not supposed to get to a city center or a railway station by car...but that's for a later post.

Note afterwards

As one can read in the reaction by Quezzzt, the NS, the bicycle and the Dutch railway system is almost getting a victim of its own success. The entire system is pushed to its limits and further growth requires huge investments (I think these investments will be made, Quezzzt doubts).

The Dutch railway success is the result of a series of political choices, a few of them dating back to 1970 (actually, the decisions were taken in 1969): Spoorslag '70 and Spoor naar '75. At that time, our railway system was not a success at all. It was a big money pit for the Dutch. But at that time, 3 years BEFORE the oil crisis and BEFORE action group Stop de Kindermoord, the Dutch simply realized that the railway was fulfilling a very important public role. Instead of cutting down on costs (which would have killed the system in the end), the NS were taking an aggressive approach and were willing to invest to make it work. They doubled the frequency of the trains, made it tick like a Swiss clockwork etc and those decisions were the starting gun for the revival of the Dutch railways. My advice to any public transport system that did work, but doesn't anymore: execute Spoorslag 70. The NS is not the only one getting itself out of trouble that way...

6 opmerkingen:

  1. Hi Magic,

    Another clear post on this subject! I'm sure Quezzzt will enjoy this one! I agree with your statements, I myself just travelled by train in my military duty period, and confirm your opions, though it's a pretty long time ago now.
    Train have run punctly in many years and are reliable. I also never had problems to take a bike with me, you just buy a ticket and put it in the goods wagon.
    A nearby station didn't we have, living in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen it was a 10 km bike trip to the Breskens ferry, go over the Schelde river and take a train on Vlissingen station.
    Intresting post, thanks!

    Greetings, Adri.

  2. Hi Magic,
    You are lucky to have such a great rail system. Here in Canada the train is mostly used to haul containers and freight. Our passenger trains are very expensive and more of a holiday trip. It is usually cheaper to fly or drive. I have to say the distances are much greater here between major cities. In the eastern part of Canada there is more train use between cities and better service. It still would make the UK look good.
    Greetings from Canada

  3. I read it, typed a lenghty reply ( wall of text ) and 1,5 year old pulled the internet cable....

    I couldnt bring myself retyping the wall of text ;-))

    In short : the folding bike in combination with trains is often a highly effective transport solution when you need not go further then 5 km to and from a train station.

    And not everything - as always - is at it seems. The NS is NOT interested in drawing more passengers, especially not in rush hours. More passengers will NOT increase profit, but decrease it a lot. Expansion of infrastructure is nessesary to be able to facilitate more trains or longer trains - as magic Bullit correctly analysed - wich comes at astronomical costs as are higher losses between rush hours when too much trains require too much economical devaluation, maintanance and keep using energy while just sitting on a shifting yard to maintain ready state for the next deployment. In short : they always cost money wether you transport people or not. In fact, electric trains are very economical with supplied power when they are moving people, and on top of that roll with shutdown engines for up to 70 % of the trip's distance. They just cost a lot of money when they are not moving people....such as between rush hours.

    WHY the NS is then increasingly improving services like opening new modern bicycle depots, facilitating rental service of bicycles and even electric scooters, again fielding its'own zone taxi service, taking over or co operating previously city owned tram/metro companies and entering bids to bus services is NOT menat to draw more passengers. Or to impress them even....

    It is because there is a publicly hidden takeover war going on between NS and very large and powerfull foreign public transport operators that would love exploit the lucrative Dutch main railroad corridors. These foreign transport operators have already a tiny foothold in the Netherlands via small subcompanies that run economical not interesting sidelines. That is why HSL/Fyra is under such extraordinary attack from politicians, of whom some pubicly want to decrease the role of the NS. These politicans ofcourse are under the influence of the powerfull foreign lobby. HSL is another foothold and increased presence in the Netherlands.

    When the foreign operators can grow large enough in the Netherlands, it will become less logical/impossible to grant NS automaticly use of the lucrative main corridors. The EU will then intervene on unallowed protectionism.

    Conclusion : NS is doing all these nice things to become more relevant, bigger more important to Dutch people. It is all they can do as they are fighting giants...

  4. lol, did you leave out OV Fiets on purpose? :)

  5. Don't forget free high speed WiFi in trains in Holland

  6. Thanks guys!
    @Bobslee, Zeeuws Vlaanderen is the worst-accessable piece of main land in NL - almost like an to read that you just sticked to Dutch culture!
    @Kevin,yes, we're quite lucky overhere in many ways, although people tend to forget that when e.g. stuck in traffic jams ;-)
    @Quezzzt,your 1.5yrs (LOL) did it on purpose, to rid of your wall of text! ;-)
    You made me write a note afterwards. You're describing a competition mechanism that (for the 1st time!) works for railways! Brilliant! The NS has monopoly until 2025. But soon, it will become a full state service again (mark my words). Thatcherism-like market thinking for public items like railways have had their longest days. We don't trust it anymore (financial crisis). SNCF and DB also have monopoly. The Fyra is so hilarious, we could make a separate blog on it together, Quezzzt. In short, if one can order the world's best hi speed trains at your neighbors (France and Germany), than of course the Dutch are going to order it cheaper in Italy. If then the Italians deliver a product with such ugly design (for those who don't know, check out Fyra on Google), then you know on beforehand that it has to be wrong. LOL. The whole problem with the Fyra is that it is a prestige project, but totally unimportant for NL. In this case, the politicians just do what they always do (like many other humans): blame the others. I don't think they really want to get rid of the NS - they own it. But yes, there is always a fight for power over the NS.
    @ Ize and Unknown. These are luxury items, small but important indeed. There are many little nice things to find in our railway system, but I think I have to keep my posts short - otherwise people don't read them. So I sticked to the big things. Feel free to list them in your reply!