I recently started a new job in Tilburg (yay!), which means I’ll be spending a lot more time on trains. So, it’s a good job I like train travel. In fact, I like most forms of public transport, even buses and especially trams. I know I’m not supposed to. I know I’m supposed to complain endlessly about how cramped, smelly, dirty, expensive, slow etc. they are. I agree, public transport can be expensive. In fact, in my second year of sixth form, I stopped using Stagecoach buses in protest against the constant price hikes, and walked the hour and fifteen minutes there instead (I like long walks too). Public transport can also be very filthy at times – I’m looking at you, East Midlands train service between Manchester and Nottingham. And slow. I’ll admit even I got bored after eight hours on the train going from Cornwall to Manchester.
But despite all its downfalls, there is something nice about the time and space that public transport allows. I could get my licence, buy a car and drive to work instead. It would certainly take about the same amount of time as the train. But, aside from the fact that I would be wracked with ecoguilt, I also wouldn’t be able to read whilst I drive, or catch up on some writing, or take a nap, or simply enjoy the view from the window. The time I spend on the train is mine, to do with as I wish.
I think there is something particularly comforting, romantic even, about train travel. There are the familiar announcements: all change, all change; Dames en heren, goede avond, het volgende station is… The gentle rocking of the train, lulling you to sleep. The warmth of the train carriage on a cold day. The promise of adventure at the end of the line.
NS (the Dutch state-owned railway operator) is currently doing works on the line between Den Bosch and Tilburg, which means I’m having to travel via Amsterdam Centraal. The other evening, as I was waiting on the platform at Centraal for the train that would finally take me home, I took the time to actually look around and notice what a stunning station it is. The long, arched roof impresses through sheer force of scale. Despite having been built between 1882-1889, it feels dystopically futuristic. A future like the one Asimov envisaged in Caves of Steel, where humans no longer go outside, but travel between large metal domes via underground roads.
Yet despite this grim association, I was struck by the fact that railway stations seem to have such a strong sense of place. They shouldn’t really, like shopping centres they are non-places. Most railway stations tend to look very similar. In fact, Amsterdam Centraal reminds me a lot of London St Pancras. They are also non-places in the sense that they are places for passing through. Unless you’re early for your train or it’s delayed, train stations aren’t really places for spending a lot of time in. But I don’t like to refer to anywhere as a non-place. I refuse to accept that any place is without value, however subjective that judgement might be. After all, someone who hates trains and loves shopping might feel very differently, and even I’ve grown attached to some shopping centres (more on that in a future blog post).
Perhaps it’s not the station itself, but the promise of all those places at the end of all those tracks, that gives train stations their sense of place. The train that takes me to visit my Dad in Oxford. The train that takes me back to St Andrews after the long summer. The train that takes me to Cornwall and the sea. The train that takes me home, wherever that might be.
As well as the railways sheds, Amsterdam Centraal’s gothic frontage is also impressive – although it was deeply unpopular when it was first constructed, because it blocked the city off from its harbour front. I wonder what the inhabitants of 19th century Amsterdam would think of the station today, which has an Ibis hotel next to it and is fronted by tram and bus stops. It is certainly not as appealing (and not nearly as green) today as it is in the above colourised photo of the station from c. 1890-1900.
In one of those moments that makes you think the world is a little more ordered than it appears, I learnt that the roof of the station was constructed from cast iron by Andrew Handyside and Company, of Derby, England. Who, as it turns out, also provided the structures for Manchester Central – a small degree of separation from home.
Have a flick through this video, which shows the journey between Alkmaar and Amsterdam from the perspective of the train driver. Skip to around 40:00 to see the approach into Amsterdam Centraal.