European Union? Tell that to train passengers on the journey between the Netherlands and Brussels

23 January 2009

European Union? Tell that to train passengers on the journey between the Netherlands and Brussels

You don't see the Christian Democrat Transport Minister Camiel Eurlings very often in the 'Benelux train", the ordinary, non-High Speed train which runs from Amsterdam to Brussels, calling in at The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government. He knows – and admits – that services on this line are well below standard. Packed, unhealthy, with leaky toilets and overflowing rubbish bins. You pay for a seat but there's a good chance you'll have to stand. Lights and heaters coming away from the walls. The gangways remind you of Tokyo in the rush hour. Tickets you might have to get from automatic machines that don't offer a full range of concessionary fares, especially if you're travelling early, before the booking offices open. And if they are open, you have to pay an extra €3.50 to use them instead of the machines. If you're train is late in the Netherlands – a not uncommon occurrence in itself – you can at least get some money back, but this rule doesn't apply on international services. All of this adds up to a sort of dull ache that has already gone on for far too long.

Enquire about this train in Belgium and you're likely to be told it's been cancelled. In the Netherlands more often the story is that it will be along in thirty minutes, a Dutch Railways (NS) euphemism which covers any and all delays, the word 'delay' having been consigned to the dustbin of history by NS propaganda chief Joost Ravoo.

Since around a month ago government ministers have been able to leave the train north of Brussels, in Mechelen, where they change to the train to Brussels Schumann, in the heart of the 'European' district. This is because the Benelux train no longer stops at Brussels North. If you haven't changed at Mechelen, then ministers, their entourage, and also perfectly ordinary travellers have to go on to Brussels Central or Brussels Midi, get a train back to Brussels North, and then proceed from there to Schumann, adding half an hour to their journey to the EU institutions. An hour if they're going on to Luxembourg.

SP Euro-MP Erik Meijer, a frequent user of this train, which also stops at his home town of Rotterdam, has put a series of written questions to the European Commission asking them to intervene. No thought seems to have been given to the interests of cross-border passengers unless they take the Thalys, the expensive high-speed train on which you cannot use concessionary passes. This has to be booked in advance, so it's hard, or impossible, to make last minute changes to your plans, even if these are made necessary by problems caused by the rain network itself. Strange but true: European integration has led to the disappearance of numerous transfrontier regional services.

All of this does carry one potential advantage for the traveller. Quite often the train is so packed the inspector never reaches you, and if you're travelling on an open ticket you can hang on to it and travel for free next time.

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