How To Get Around by Train
The country is densely populated and urbanised, and train services are frequent. There are two main types of trains: Intercity trains and Sprinter (or sometimes ‘Stoptrein’) trains which stop at all stations. An intermediate type ‘Sneltrein’ is found in a few places. All these types of train have the same prices (you pay about € 0,25 per kilometer). There are also a few high-speed trains (such as the ‘Intercity Direct’ between Amsterdam Central station, this includes Schiphol Airport, and Breda) which are more expensive and sometimes require an extra ‘product’ to be put on your OV-Chipkaart (see above). Travelling all the way from the north of the country (Groningen) to the south (Maastricht) takes about 4.5 hours.
Most lines offer one train every 15 minutes (every 10 minutes during the rush hours), but some rural lines run only every 60 minutes. Where more lines run together, the frequency is, of course, even higher. In the west of the Netherlands, the rail network is more like a large urban network, with up to 12 trains per hour on main routes.
The Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) operates most routes. Some local lines are operated by Syntus, Arriva, Veolia and Connexxion.
Because of the high service frequency, delays are quite common. However, the delay is usually limited to 5 to 10 minutes. Note though that NS boasts a punctuality of 85% (meaning that this percentage of trains departs/arrives within 3 minutes of the scheduled time), which could be higher than you’re used to. Trains can be crowded during the rush hour, especially in the morning, but most of the time you’ll find a seat. Reserving seats on domestic trains is not possible.
Many tourists experience that they’re in the wrong part of a train: many trains are split up somewhere along the way, for different destinations. So watch the signs over the platforms for parts and destinations: achterste deel/achter means back and voorste deel/voor means front, referring to the direction of departure. Sometimes trains leave in the direction they came from. Probably a more secure way to know would be the part of the platform: a or b, also mentioned at time tables etc. Most trains have displays inside (front and back wall of each train section) showing stations and destination, and even information about times and platforms for changing trains. Announcements are made in Dutch when trains are separated. Feel free to ask other passengers (most people will be able to explain in English) or an employee. When you find yourself in the wrong part of a train, don’t worry: you’ll have time enough to change at the station where the train is split.
Schiphol to Amsterdam city
Another frequent surprise involves tourists travelling from Schiphol to Amsterdam. From Schiphol you can travel by train to either Amsterdam Centraal or Amsterdam Zuid (South) (or: WTC, Duivendrecht). Tourists heading for Amsterdam City/old town need to go to Centraal but many of them wind up at South. As these railway stations are not connected directly it can take a while to get to the city centre from there. So watch the signs on the platforms. But once you are at Amsterdam Zuid best you can do is take a metro to Centraal (takes about 15 min.), a train back to Schiphol, or to Duivendrecht (direction Amersfoort/Enschede or Almere), change there to Centraal (2nd floor). If you discover it too late you might wind up in another part of the country, especially if you’re in an intercity train. If you passed the destination on your ticket and you get ‘caught’ by the conductor: stay polite and play the ignorant tourist (which is quite adequate). You’re not the first. Be aware that NS trains have little room for luggage. Big suitcases blocking the paths are a pain for other passengers, so try to keep them between the seats. In some trains you can put them between the back of seats.
There is a convenient night train service (for party-goers and airport traffic) between Rotterdam, Delft, The Hague, Leiden, Schiphol, Amsterdam, and Utrecht, all night long, once an hour in each direction. In the nights Friday onto Saturday and Saturday onto Sunday, North-Brabant is also served. You can get to Dordrecht, Breda, Tilburg and ‘s-Hertogenbosch / Eindhoven.
Many intercity trains, (almost all single-deck trains and a few double-deck trains) have free WiFi internet access (Named Wifi in de trein). Some intercity trains have electrical outlets in the First Class, but it can’t be guaranteed.
Most trains have two comfort classes (First Class and Second Class, identified by big ‘1s and ‘2s on the side of the train). Some regional lines don’t have first class. First class can easily be recognized since the seats are usually red (most ‘Sprinters’ and intercities) or black. Second class have blue or green seats. Some sections in trains are silent zones (which is indicated with a white stripe on the glass with the text Stilte – Silence. In this zone you aren’t allowed to talk or make phone calls (the fine for calling in a silent zone is € 85,-).
There is one national tariff system for train travel. You don’t need separate tickets for other operators (except in some international trains). Tickets are valid on both sprinter and intercity services; there is no difference in price. The most used tickets are the one way (enkele reis) and return tickets (retour). The latter is valid one day, so you should return on the same day. The price is equal to two ‘one way’ tickets, so a return ticket offers no price advantage. Single tickets (2nd class) can cost up to €30 and up to €60 for return on very long distances. This is the same as the price as of day passes.
Tickets are valid in any train on the route (as opposed to being valid in only one fixed train). You’re free to take a break at any station on your route, even if this isn’t a station where you need to transfer, and resume your journey later on. As in many countries, there is a difference between first and second class. A second class ticket is 60% of the price of a first class ticket. The main advantage of first class is that it is less crowded, and seats and aisles are generally wider. For children 4-11 y.o. a Railrunner ticket is available for €2,50. The Railrunner ticket allows for free travel for the duration of one day; children need to be with a parent/guardian if they travel first class.
There is no discount for tickets that are bought in advance, unlike in some countries. The ticket price is uniform and depends on distance between start and destination (sometimes different routes are possible and allowed). Always make sure your OV-Chipkaart is checked in before boarding the train.
Tickets can be purchased from machines in stations. Some of the ticket machines, at least one at each station, also accept coins (but no notes). Since August / September 2014, all machines at all train stations accept Mastercard / VISA creditcards with PIN. There is a €0.50 supplement for paying by creditcard and a €1 supplement for buying a disposable, single-use, chipcard. Only larger stations have ticket counters. All ticket machines have English-language menus available. A common mistake made by foreigners is accidentally getting a 40% discount (‘korting’) ticket from the machine. A special discount-card is required for these tickets, although you can travel on other people’s discount cards too (Tip; you can ask a student to travel along with you, his so-called Studentenreisproduct allows for three people to ride with a 40% discount). (See Discount rail pass). If you have trouble using the ticket machine, ask someone else for help; almost everyone speaks English and will help you out. It is also possible to buy e-tickets online, although a Dutch bank account for payment (iDEAL) is necessary. Unfortunately, some tickets can only be bought online. For example group tickets, these tickets are low-priced from €7,00 till €13.75 (only depending on group size, price for all distances) for a day retour ticket.
You must buy a ticket before travelling—since 2005, you can no longer simply buy a ticket from the conductor, as in some other countries. If the conductor asks you for your ticket but you can’t show any, you’ll have to pay the ticket (without any discount) plus a € 35,- fine. If the ticket machines are defective, go to the conductor immediately when boarding. The conductor is not allowed any discretion on this policy, though being polite and pretending to be an ignorant tourist mighthelp you get away with having an invalid ticket. In worst case though, if you do not have either enough cash, or a passport, you could be arrested by railway police. The only exception to this rule is the Grensland Express that connects Hengelo to Bad Bentheim (Germany), where you have to get the ticket from the conductor and the OV Chipkaart is not valid.
In the station
While many villages have small stations with only one or two platforms and no railway staff, cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht have large central stations with up to 18 platforms. It can take 5-10 minutes to move from one platform to another, especially for people not familiar with the station.
The platforms are all numbered. When platforms are so long that two or more trains can halt at the same platform, the different parts of the platform are indicated with the lowercase letters a/b/c, these signs are blue and have the platform number, followed by the letter (e.g. 14b) printed on them and are usually located next to the monitors containing train information. On some stations, capital letters are used to indicate which part of the train stops at which part of the station (usually seen at stations where international trains arrive), these signs are white, significantly smaller than the blue platform signs, and have only the capital letter on them.
Time tables can be found in the station hall and on the platforms. All train tables are normally yellow, with exceptions for the different schedules during planned maintenance works (blue) and queen’s day (orange). Departing trains are printed in blue (on yellow tables), arriving train tables in red. Unlike in other countries, the tables themselves are not ordered by time of departure, but by direction. In some cases, more than one table is necessary to cover a single day for a certain direction. Additionally, all stations have blue electronic screens, indicating the trains departing during the next hour (which include delays and/or cancellations).
NOTE: Dutch trains tend to be VERY punctual. This means that the train leaves the station the moment the clock strikes the appointed time. Thus, the doors tend to close a little earlier, around 1 minute before. Be sure to be on the platform, ready to board, at least 3-5 minutes before the published departure time—especially during peak hours and/or on a crowded route.
Discount rail pass
Visitors planning to travel by train in the Netherlands should consider the Eurail pass with the Benelux package. This allows for unlimited train travel within Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg over multiple days. Europeans, not being eligible for Eurail passes, should look into Inter Rail Passes for their discount train travel.
If two or three people want to travel around the Netherlands together for a few days during the summer, the Zomertoer may be used. This pass gives them two, not necessarily consecutive, days of unlimited travel. An add-on also allows you to travel on all other public transportation in the country. In autumn weekends, the Herfsttoer also gives some discounts. These packages may or may not be available since they’re bound to seasons.
If you’re thinking of staying a longer time in the Netherlands it can be a good deal to get the Dal Voordeel Abonnement (Off-peak discount), which gives the cardholder (and up to three additional persons travelling with him or her) 40% off for one year on NS trains, except when travelling during peak hours (working days 6.30-9.00h and 16.00-18.30h, except holidays). The subscription costs € 50,- for one year (2014). The subscription includes a personal OV-chipkaart which takes 2 weeks to process. If you already have one, the subscription can be loaded onto your own personal OV-chipkaart. Remember that you always have to check in and out, the discount will be automatically applied, depending on the time of check in. Depending on your travel pattern, NS also have monthly and yearly subscriptions for free travel in weekends, off-peak hours or the entire subscription period including peak hours, and also a subscription that offers a 40% discount for the entire period including peak hours.
The accompanied traveller discount can be loaded easily at any kiosk.
If you are in the Netherlands for only one day and want to see much of the country by train, you may want to get a “Dagkaart” (day pass), for € 50,80 (2014)), valid in 2nd class on all non-surcharge trains in the Netherlands (thus excluding the Fyra and international trains, but including local companies. These trains are marked by a white bar on the displays stating Een extra toeslag is mogelijk van toepassing op deze trein). Sometimes different stores sell “Dagkaart” at a cheaper rate (€ 13 or € 16), however those are just tokens (only valid in a certain time period possibly weeks AFTER the day you purchased these tokens) you use on the NS website in order to change them to tickets (see instructions on the token or receipt itself). These tickets are bound to a name and date and the procedure is all in Dutch but pretty self explanatory. You also need to print these cards out, tickets displayed on an electronic screen (smartphone, tablet etc) will not be accepted. The cheaper € 13 ticket is only valid on weekends (Saturday, Sunday and holidays) while the € 16 ticket is valid every weekday after 9 AM and all day in the weekends and holiday. Stores that sell these reduced day tickets are Kruidvat, Blokker, Intertoys, HEMA and Albert Heijn as long as supplies last.
For an additional 5,50 you get the OV-Dagkaart, which adds free transport on bus, tram and metro.
The NS train service also has a special website with which you can buy combined tickets to various tourist attractions (e.g. 20% discount + free train connection). However, the website is exclusively in Dutch and a Dutch bank account is needed in order to buy the tickets (payments are processed by iDeal).