Trains in the Netherlands: how to use the Dutch train system

First off: using the train system in the Netherlands is very easy and comfortable.

When you first arrive in the Netherlands, most likely at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, you'll notice that it's very easy to get to other parts of the Netherlands fast using the public transportation system.

Of course, you could take a cab or rent a car to take you anywhere you want to go, but perhaps it's much nicer (and cheaper) to view life in the Netherlands up close by taking a train, bus or tram. After all, millions of Dutch people - young and old, rich and poor - use the public transportation system every day to get to work, school, or someplace else.

Holland has one of the most extensive and modern public transportations systems in the world, and you can get to almost any part of the country within a matter of hours traveling only by train and/or bus. In this article, we'll explore the train system in the Netherlands, and you'll learn how to use them to get to wherever you want to go.

A train in Holland

Using the train system in the Netherlands

As you near the main plaza of Schiphol Airport, you'll notice there are escalators down to the underground train platforms. Large yellow-and-blue signs show the departure and arrival times of the trains coming from and going to many directions; you'll want to use them to determine what time your train leaves, whether you're at Schiphol or another train station somewhere else in the Netherlands.

Finding your train

Below, you can see an example of a departure sign. Using an example destination, you'll learn how easy it is to check what time your train leaves and which platform you need to go to.

Holland train schedule

The first thing you'll notice is that the departure times are very exact - 14:21, for example. Unless the train is running late (which only happens about 10% of the time and even then the delay is usually only 5 to 10 minutes), your train will leave exactly at the time indicated.

Now, check and see if you can find the correct sign for the city you want to go to... let's say it's Rotterdam. If Rotterdam is a major city, it will be listed directly in the sign header. If it's a smaller city in the direction of a larger city, make sure you know which larger city that is; that way, you can search for the departure sign with the larger city on it.

Found the correct sign? Great! Now look for the approximate time you'd like to take the train and then make sure your city is listed in the small font next to the time. If it is, the train will go to that city. If it isn't, find another time around your desired timeframe and check if the station is listed there. Now, note the platform the train will be leaving from, you'll need this information to find your train later on.

If you need to change trains during your journey, the signs will also contain this information.

If you'd like to check the departure times ahead of time, you can do so at the website of the Dutch Railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen), which can be found at http://www.ns.nl/.

There it is! Now you know which train you'll be taking and from which platform it's departing, it's time to buy a train ticket.

Buying your train tickets

In the Netherlands, you don't need to place a ticket reservation ahead of time if you're traveling within the boundaries of the country; you can just buy a ticket right before your train leaves and hop on.

Trains to most destinations leave at least once an hour between 6am and 11pm, and larger destinations will have trains running between them even more frequently (up to once per 10 or 15 minutes). The train system is only fully operational during daytime, though; much like the subway system. There are some night trains, but the train service usually comes to a standstill between about 1am and 6am.

There are two ways of buying tickets: by going to the ticket counter or by using the ticket machine. In an effort to get more people to use the ticket machine, however, the Dutch Railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) has recently implemented an extra charge of €0,50 for those people who want to buy their tickets at a counter.

The ticket machines are very easy to use and usually available in English, German and French as well, so you don't really need to buy your ticket at the counter anyway. If you'd like to take a test run of a ticket machine beforehand, you can do so at this webpage.

Finding and boarding your train

Got your tickets? Great! Now it's time to board your train. You'll first have to find the correct platform, which you noted earlier when you checked the yellow-and-blue departure signs.

Most platforms are numbered logically and count upward, so if you need to get to platform 5 and you see a sign for platform 3 up ahead, you should see your platform appearing momentarily as you keep walking.

There are a few strangely numbered platforms, though. For example, there's a platform 35 in the main train station of Nijmegen, even though the station obviously isn't large enough to accomodate anywhere near that many platforms. In this case, just ask anyone around you; most people you'll see walking around the train station take the train on a regular basis and will know exactly where your platform is.

Once you've found the right platform, an overhead sign like the one below should show the departure time of your train, as well as the train stations it will be stopping at along the way.

Holland Train Schedule

If this isn't the case, don't panic! Especially if you're early, the information shown on the overhead sign might be of a train that's coming in the station ahead of your train. (In Holland, the times between two trains making use of the same platform can be as little as 3 minutes.) Just note the time on the sign and if it's earlier than the departure time of your train, just wait until the earlier train leaves and the information on the sign changes.

Of course, if you're not entirely sure that you're in the right place, you can always ask anyone who's there on the platform for help. Most people speak English at least a little and will be delighted to help you out.

Once your train arrives, wait until everyone in the train has had a chance to get out. Some trains are very full and you might have to wait a minute until you can board.

Once all passengers have left the train, get aboard and find a compartment labeled "2" (unless you've bought a first-class ticket, which I wouldn't recommend). Especially during rush hours, some trains might be very full and you might be hard-pressed to find a seat. If this is the case, don't worry - someone will usually get off the train at the next station and you'll be able to sit down within a few minutes.

If you have trouble standing for longer periods of time because of a disability, don't hesitate to ask someone around you if they are willing to give up their seat for you. This usually shouldn't pose a problem.

Right before the train leaves, you will hear a whistle blowing. This indicates the doors are about to close and the train will start moving.

The journey itself, and exiting the train

Success! Now that you've found a seat, relax and enjoy the ride. You can read a book, strike up a conversation with someone, open up your laptop and start working, sleep a little, or just look outside and enjoy the Dutch landscape.

In some trains, their might be a catering service aboard. Dutch trains don't normally have dining cars, so this catering service will consist of someone pushing a small cart around the train compartments. You can get refreshments here or a sandwich or a cookie, but that's usually the most you can expect. The prices of these catering services are usually very high, so it's probably a good idea to either buy something to eat or drink beforehand or at your destination.

During the journey, the train conductor might come by and ask you for your ticket. These conductors are uniformed and you'll instantly recognize them on any train. When asked, present them with your ticket; they'll punch a hole in it (thereby invalidating it for another trip) and give the ticket back to you. If you have a return ticket, don't worry: you'll still be able to use it on the return trip, of course.

The conductor will also announce the next train station over the intercom. If you're not sure your station is next, don't be afraid to ask someone nearby. As an alternative, you can always look outside: every train station in the Netherlands has signs with the name of the city on them posted at intervals on all platforms. You can always read these signs from within the train so you'll instantly know which station you're pulling into.

Once the train arrives at a train station, you will have ample time to get off the train before it resumes its trip. Although many Dutch passengers will know which station the train is pulling into and will move toward the exits early, you do not have to get out of your seat until the train has come to a complete standstill. The exception is when you have a lot of luggage with you, in which case I would advise standing up as the station pulls into the train station.

Once the train has stopped, you have at least one minute (but at large train stations usually several minutes longer) before the whistle blows again to indicate that the doors are closing. Especially at large stations, many people will need to get off the train and more will be waiting outside to board, so you'll have ample time to move toward an exit and leave the train.

Congratulations! You have now successfully completed your first train journey. If you need to get to another platform to continue your journey in another train, you can do so now. If you're at your final destination, you can walk in the direction of one of the exits and leave the train station. If necessary, you can catch a bus to get closer to your destination, take a taxi or walk to where you need to be.

General tips for traveling by train in Holland

  • If possible, travel outside of the regular rush hours (8-9:30am and 4-6:30pm) during weekdays to avoid packed trains.

  • Smoking is not allowed anywhere on Dutch trains. In train stations, separate smoking areas are available; do not smoke outside of those designated areas.

  • All trains contain bathrooms that you can use when the train is moving, but they are not very comfortable and usually not very luxurious either. Make sure you go to the bathroom prior to boarding your train.

  • If you weren't able to purchase a train ticket prior to boarding, report to the conductor as soon as you board the train; you'll be able to buy a ticket from him. If you're caught without a train ticket once the train is moving, you can expect a hefty fine.

  • Enjoy your ride! You don't need to be at constant alert that you'll miss your stop - the conductor will announce every train station over the intercom, and you can see which station you're pulling into by looking out the window and reading the name of the city you're at on the signs posted clearly throughout the platform. When in doubt, don't be afraid to ask anyone nearby when your station is coming up. Also, if you check your journey online beforehand, you can see what your arrival time will be, which is a very good indicator of when you should start paying attention.

Helpful websites for preparing your train journey in Holland

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