My parents' plan was to spend the first week in the Netherlands, staying with people we had known from living there ten years earlier, and to visit Leiden, the city where we had lived. Then they would spend a week in London, England, after which they would visit Scotland and Ireland. The Netherlands and London would appeal to me, and I decided to basically travel with them for those two weeks. But I would spend much of each day on my own, riding the rails, usually rejoining them for dinner. For the remaining three weeks, I decided that a rapid trip through other European countries would be more appealing than Scotland and Ireland, so I decided to spend that period traveling alone.
I would get a Eurailpass for those three weeks alone, while I had to get a separate Britrail Pass for that one week. For the first week I would buy an eight day "kriskras" ticket, sold in the Netherlands specifically for unlimited use of that rail system.
I began riding the rails of Europe the second morning after departure from Chicago O'Hare. Our flight was scheduled to arrive Amsterdam the first morning after departure, but mechanical problems on the chartered KLM stretch DC-8 delayed the flight several hours. We were met at the Amsterdam airport by friends, and we stayed at their home in Hilversum for two nights. Hilversum is in the center of the Netherlands and is near Utrecht, which is the headquarters and hub of the Netherlands Railways.
My first train ride was from Hilversum to Utrecht, where I was greeted by one indication of the Americanization of Europe: a sign for a McDonald's. I then boarded a train for Leiden, where we had lived ten years earlier. When we had lived there, I often rode a bicycle in the neighboring countryside, along portions of this line. Imagine my shock this time as I approached Leiden, and saw that they had built a new Heineken brewery in what I had remembered ten years earlier as farm country! Of course in those ten years, Heineken beer had increased in popularity in the United States.
Leiden is less than an hour from Utrecht by train. The Netherlands is such a small country that most points are within an hour or two from Utrecht. In fact, while I was riding the trains, our friends drove my parents half way across the country to see an opera at a location near the North Sea, then drove half way across the country back home! Each day I was in the Netherlands, my train riding would usually take me through Utrecht at least once. This was fine for me, as I became fond of the roast beef broodjes sold at one of the food counters at the station there. Broodje literally means small bread, and refers to a bun which is used for a sandwich. Usually when I would pass through Utrecht in an afternoon, I would spontaneously decide to take a lunch break.
The Netherlands railway system is easy to travel on spontaneously and without advance planning. Trains operate on hourly memory patterns, with two or more trains an hour on most lines. And trains are timed to make convenient connections at junction stations. Most of the system is electrified, as are most European railway systems. Most trains in the Netherlands are electric or diesel multiple unit, with some electric locomotive hauled trains. I spent more time in the Netherlands than in any other country, partially from having lived there and partially from my Dutch heritage, as evidenced by my last name. I did manage to ride most of that system, either during that first week or during my final several days in Europe.
Netherlands - Detailed Report/Photos
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A number of years after I originally wrote this article, I decided to write expanded reports on my travels within the Netherlands, including more photos.
My parents' original plan was to fly from Amsterdam to London, while I was determined to travel the more fashionable way: by boat and train. But a six hour daytime trip across the North Sea would result in a wasted day, so I decided to get a berth in the overnight boat. And my parents decided that this was such a good idea that we all went that way, and it worked out well.
We stayed in London a week, and I managed to ride out some distance on most of the main lines out of London. London had eight major train stations serving intercity trains, with several other stations serving just commuter trains. London has a comprehensive commuter train network with various branch lines, and most of the main lines have four tracks to accommodate both local and fast trains. On most of those lines the two pairs of tracks are divided by speed instead of direction. For example, on the main line west from Paddington Station to Reading, the south pair of tracks is for fast trains and the north pair is for slow trains. It is on this line where I rode the 125 MPH diesel trains, which had been recently introduced. These are the smoothest trains which I have ever ridden, as I was clocking 28 seconds between mileposts. I also did a bit of riding on London's subway system, officially known as the Underground and informally known as the "Tube." The Underground is a fascinating network of many routes crisscrossing at different levels, sometimes quite deep. When I was there there were eight lines and various branches. A ninth line, the Jubilee Line, was under construction. One time I got to do something I had gotten the idea for several years earlier: flip a coin. When approaching a transfer point: heads I stay on, tails I get off. If tails: flip again. Heads I switch to the Bakerloo Line, tails I switch to the Victoria Line. After that: heads I go east, tails I go west. And so on. So I spent an hour or two flipping these interesting British coins, but I didn't get very far. Nevertheless it was neat to be able to do this.
England (London) - Photos
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England (Outside London) - Photos
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The farthest out I got on the Underground was Heathrow Airport, on an extension of the Piccadilly Line which had just recently opened. From there I would leave England on my only plane flight within Europe: to Bergen, Norway. This way I could ride through much of Scandinavia without spending valuable vacation time backtracking. I had heard that the train ride from Bergen to Oslo over the mountains was something special, and I was not at all disappointed. It takes most of a day to make the 471 km (293 mile) trip, which reaches a maximum elevation of 1301 meters (4265 feet) above sea level. At a latitude that far north, that altitude is above the tree line. Norway is one of the more sparsely populated countries in Europe, so the rail system is not as extensive or as frequent as in other countries. Most lines are single track, with CTC on many lines including the Oslo-Bergen route.
Bergen-Oslo - Photos Part I
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Bergen-Oslo - Photos Part II
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Once I was traveling on my own, I usually stayed at youth hostels, which are practical places for students to stay. Long popular in Europe, youth hostels are just starting to catch on in the United States. Sleeping areas are communal, segregated by gender, but the rates are cheap and it becomes easy to meet other travelers. The quality and amenities sometimes vary, but most hostels were quite comfortable. Facilities are available for travelers to prepare their own meals, but I always ate in restaurants to save time. I usually found the restaurants at the major train stations to be the most reliable. I stayed at youth hostels in Bergen, Oslo, and in Stockholm, Sweden. Most of the populated areas in Sweden are flat enough for high speed trains, but speeds on the double track Stockholm-Goteborg main line were limited by the many highway crossings.
Stockholm - Photos
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My next stop after Sweden was Copenhagen, Denmark. Denmark is separated from Sweden by a portion of the Baltic Sea, and two cars of the train were pushed onto a ferry for a 25 minute ride from Helsingborg to Helsingor. The two cars were then attached to a Danish train for the short trip into Copenhagen, where I stayed two nights at a hotel. Denmark was the only country I visited without any main line electrification, with just the Copenhagen suburban lines electrified. I rode trains powered by two different diesel locomotive models, both of which were built in Sweden and powered by General Motors engines. As typical for European locomotives, both models had full width bodies and had cabs at both ends. The Class MY was powered by a 1950 horsepower 16 cylinder non-turbocharged 567C engine, and it sounded like an F9. And the newer Class MZ had a 3300 horsepower 16 cylinder turbocharged 645E3 engine, and it sounded like an SDP40F. General Motors technology in a Swedish built locomotive. In an interesting reversal several years later, Swedish technology was used in a General Motors built locomotive, when the AEM-7's were built for Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.
My next destination was Germany, which is separated from that part of Denmark by another part of the Baltic Sea. Again, part of our train was pushed onto a ferry, and this crossing took an hour, plenty of time to enjoy a delicious buffet lunch on the ferry. I spent a night in Hamburg before continuing south to Hannover. I chose to travel to Hannover via a branch line through Soltau, and this enabled me to ride a train using a few of the German Railways' Uerdingen railbuses. Diesel powered and with only one axle at each end, they were not the most comfortable trains. But the driver did not have a separate compartment, and it was possible for railfans in the front car to have a great view ahead. I was able to observe that this branch line had well maintained welded rail. And that although the line had older mechanical manual block signals, next to each signal was an automatic train stop inductor.
Denmark-Germany - Photos
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After spending a night in Hannover, I headed south on an Intercity express train. There I had my only dining car meal in Europe: lentil soup for lunch. It was a decent meal, though milk was served in a soft drink can, not the most pleasant way to package milk. After a few transfers I wound up in Salzburg, Austria. Along with Copenhagen, Salzburg is one of my favorite European cities. The composer Mozart was born there and "The Sound of Music" was filmed there, making it perhaps the most musical city in the world. After a night in Salzburg I headed east to Vienna, and the following day I returned west through Salzburg to Innsbruck.
Vienna/Innsbruck - Photos
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The eastern part of Austria from Vienna to Salzburg is somewhat hilly, but trains are nevertheless able to maintain a reasonable speed. The Alps start around Salzburg, and west of there Austria becomes quite rugged, with snow capped mountains around Innsbruck. After a night in Innsbruck I proceeded west to Zurich, Switzerland, over a rugged route which includes the 10 km (6 mile) Arlberg Tunnel.
Arlberg Route - Photos
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I spent two nights in Zurich. A highlight was a round trip on the route south which passes through the 15 km (9 mile) Gotthard Tunnel. That line is quite impressive, as trains proceed at a constant 80 KmPH (50 MPH). From time to time one will see what looks like another double track electrified railway, and the train will enter a tunnel with a loop, and about a half a minute later the train will wind up on that "other" railway. One could get disoriented and turned around, but overall the train handles the curves quite smoothly.
Gotthard Route - Photos
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I returned north at Airolo, at the south end of the Gotthard Tunnel and at the beginning of the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. This was the closest I got to Italy, as supposedly there were crime problems in Italy at the time. Nevertheless I was in an Italian Railway coach the next day on a northbound train, which had originated in Rome and which I rode from Zurich to Stuttgart, Germany. Entering Germany was the only time when I was given a hard time at customs, with the inspector going so far as to examine my arms for needle marks. But with patience and cooperation, the ordeal was finally over and I was legally back in Germany. After a nice ride along the Neckar River, I was in Stuttgart at around lunch time.
Zurich-Stuttgart - Photos
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I then headed west towards France. I stayed at a youth hostel in Kehl, Germany, across the Rhine River from Strasbourg, France. Up to this point I had traveled entirely in areas where I could deal with the language. I had learned some Dutch during my year living in the Netherlands, and I had German in middle and high school. And just about everyone speaks English in Scandinavia. France would be the first place in my travels where I did not know the language, and I saw no reason to enter France any sooner than I had to. Perhaps a wise decision, as once I got to Paris, hardly anyone spoke English. Nevertheless, I did get around to all the major train stations, and I saw an RTG turbo train arrive at the St. Lazare Station. At the time, Amtrak was operating that type of equipment from Chicago to Detroit and St. Louis. I had a nice walk along the River Seine, and I rode around a bit on the Metro, which was perhaps the nicest rapid transit system I rode in Europe.
But the language barrier was one reason why I left Paris after only one night. I rode back out on the main line east of Paris. At the time the "Corail" cars were the latest equipment on the rails, and those trains were comfortable and I clocked them at 160 KmPH (99 MPH). This was before the TGV revolution. My next stop was Luxembourg. Originally my thinking was that I would be able to say that I have been in Luxembourg. But I found the city of Luxembourg to be quite interesting, with old fortresses along a river valley. After a night in Luxembourg my next destination was Frankfurt, Germany, changing trains at Koblenz. The train to Koblenz traveled through the Mosel River valley, and the connecting train traveled through the Rhine River valley. Both river valleys are quite scenic with castles and vineyards.
Mosel-Rhine Rivers - Photos
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I stayed in a hotel in Frankfurt. Hannover and Frankfurt were the only places where I had any reservations, while at every other location I managed to merely show up and find space. I had prepared an itinerary for my three weeks of traveling alone, but eventually I abandoned the itinerary and only used it as a rough guideline. The next day I headed back to the Netherlands. I entered the Netherlands at Arnhem, where I tracked down some former neighbors who had moved there from Leiden, and they welcomed me to their home for a few days.
I used Arnhem as a base for further travels within the Netherlands, along with a trip into Brussels, Belgium. My Eurailpass had been validated at the Bergen Norway train station on June 30 and would expire on July 20, one day before the flight back to Chicago. But the agent in Bergen first wrote in an expiration date of July 30, then wrote over it with the correct date for a 21 day pass. This had not been a problem until July 17, when I was riding on a branch line at the extreme northeast corner of the Netherlands, near Groningen. A conductor on that train decided that this was improper, so he confiscated the pass and instructed me to go directly to the railway headquarters in Utrecht. The conductor gave my pass to the conductor of a connecting train at Groningen, and he gave it to the conductor of a connecting train at the town of Amersfoort, and that conductor gave it to a railway official in Utrecht. This unplanned trip from Groningen to Utrecht took about two hours, and there I was issued a proper Eurailpass for the remaining few days. And on July 19 my parents flew in to Amsterdam from Ireland. The last couple of nights were in an Amsterdam hotel before the return flight to Chicago.
I kept of a tally of all my train riding in Europe, and over the five weeks I logged 8294 miles in eleven countries. This includes only main line railroads and does not include rapid transit trains or streetcars. And I did not ride any overnight trains. Looking back, admittedly it was a crazy thing to make train riding the main focus of the trip. But this was when I was in college, before I matured to where I seek a more balanced life. This was the second of two trips which I have made to Europe in my lifetime. The first trip, when we lived there, was more "balanced" as our family visited the traditional tourist attractions. But on this trip, merely viewing the scenery from the trains was one way to appreciate the various lands which I traveled through. It may be a while before I make it back to Europe, but when I do go, the trains will be there to efficiently transport me between the various cities with their traditional tourist attractions. Although the railfan element will still exist in me as I take some interest in a well run transportation system.