Tomorrow is the last day of operation of the Benelux Train, an hourly Intercity service that has been connecting Brussels, Antwerp, Rosendaal, Rotterdam, Den Haag and Amsterdam since the 1950s. Philip Richards documents his three eras using it here, here and here, and Alex van Herwijnen will be on the last departure. As of Sunday, technology permitting, the new 250km/h FYRA service will replace it, shaving 40 minutes off the journey time to Amsterdam, but importantly significantly increasing ticket prices and stopping the direct connection to Den Haag (passengers for Den Haag will have to change in Rotterdam). The old Benelux train was basic, but it ran hourly, you could just turn up and get on it, and it did the job. In fact it just felt like an international version of the regular trains that run in both Belgium and the Netherlands – basic but functional. None of the swanky (and expensive) FYRA or Thalys stuff.
Anyway, the demise of the service made me remember my best rail story, and it involved a Benelux train.
As a poor student at the end of my MA in Brugge, I needed a cheap way to get to a political seminar in Arendal in Norway in the summer of 2004. That’s back in the murky era prior even to the existence of this blog. The only cheap flight from anywhere close to Bruges went from Rotterdam (with Transavia to Oslo), so I took the SNCB IC from Brugge to Antwerpen Berchem (the new Antwerpen Centraal wasn’t complete then), but due to a small delay missed the connecting Benelux train in Antwerpen. OK, no problem I thought, I’ll take the regional train to Rosendaal and from there there will either be a Dutch IC train, or in the worst case, I can pick up the next Benelux train there. (Reflecting on it now even this feels odd, as if I were faced with the same today I would have been furiously using my iPhone to find timetables, but 2004 was pre-3G for me).
But in Rosendaal it was clear something was seriously wrong. No trains north I was told – there is a problem with one of the bridges north of here, and no trains can run. OK, no flight for me I’m thinking… But then a Dutch regional train – destination Rotterdam – came into the platform, and passengers boarded. OK, let’s give this a chance I thought. We set off, only to get as far as the village of Oudenbosch. Everyone off – you have to get a replacement bus. Which did not seem to exist, at least judging by the numbers of people waiting in front of the small station there.
More in pensive frustration than hope I returned to the northbound platform… but what’s that rolling into view from the south – a Benelux train! But not due to stop in a tiny village like Oudenbosch.
Here is where I got really lucky. The Benelux train was running driving van trailer first (like this) AND there was a signal at Oudenbosch station on the platform set to red. OK, hell, why not try it – I knocked on the driver’s door, the driver opened the door, I explained the predicament in English and was let into the carriage through the driver’s door. A couple of other passengers did the same, and the train set off. No idea what happened to the dodgy bridge.
But by this time I was really late – I had calculated my train was due to arrive at Rotterdam Centraal just 35 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure of the plane, and the airport is more than 6km from the station. But I had asked passengers in the train where the exit steps were on the platform at Rotterdam so prepared myself. The other passengers were right – I hopped off the train, sprinted out to the taxi rank, woke up the driver of the first taxi who was taking an afternoon doze, dumped my bag in the boot and asked him to get me to the airport as fast as he could. 10 minutes later I was there, the last passenger to check in a bag, walking straight through the tiny terminal and up the steps and into the plane, out of breath, rather astounded, and on the way to Oslo.
So that’s my memory of the Benelux train. What stories will FYRA bring I wonder?
[NOTE: in the first draft of this blog entry the dates were confused – the first FYRA services will start only on Sunday 9th December. Thanks Alex for pointing this out.]