Trying to get back home to Düsseldorf on last Monday evening we made sure to be in Utrecht well before the scheduled departure time of our international high-speed train. We had reserved seats and ticket upgrades to first class so all was set for a comfy journey home to our cat. Now all we needed was the train. And that's where everything went pear shaped...
At our arrival at Utrecht station I noticed on the big board the ICE train from Frankfurt to Amsterdam had come in over 1 hour late. Since this is the train that goes back the same way through Utrecht I feared a delay. But none was reported. Our train was still scheduled for 18:59 as planned. So we grabbed a warming drink and went down to the platform at ten to seven accompanied by a cheery annoucer telling us our train was arriving immently as scheduled.
At 18:57 the information board on the platform suddenly turned and now told us there was a 30 min delay. Suddenly the cold felt a lot colder knowing we would be in it for at least another 30 minutes.
The information board kept saying the next train was the ICE to Frankfurt even though now other trains to local Dutch destinations were arriving on the platform. This caused enormous confusions both with passengers for the scheduled train and the trains that were actually there. So passengers were at the right platform at the right time and the train they wanted (to Nijmegen) was there but the information board said it was going to Frankfurt so not everyone got on. A group of friends got separated because some of them were trying to get accurate information from a conductor on the platform while others already boarded. Suddenly the doors closed and refused to open again. A minute after that the train left.
Here was a train that actually left on time (no small feat apparently!) but without many of its passengers because of misinformation. The other remarkable thing here is the fact that a conductor with a walkie-talkie standing next to the train was not able to communicate the simple message 'stop!' to his colleague driving the train for over 60 seconds. A security situation more akin to third-world countries than Western Europe.
It was an unbelievable mess.
Finally a railway person had the stoic courage to show up and try to help out the almost frozen passengers. But he had only the info his colleagues were giving him and that wasn't much. The train turned out to have a delay of 85 minutes now so we were in for more feet-stamping. At this point my other half was inquiring about hypothermia symptoms involving blackened toes and chisels.
The infuriating thing about this situation is that this delay must have been known by the railway company well before the original departure time of the train. But this information was simply not made available to the passengers or the local staff. This meant those 100 passengers could have been in one of the bars or restaurant in the station over an hour, sipping a hot coco or having a meal instead of freezing their extremities off on a windy platform being serially-disappointed by railway disinformation-boards. This also would have brought extra business to those bars and restaurants. A short text-message would have sufficed.
Just how infuriatingly incompetent can an organisation be before its clients break out the pitchforks and torches in a violent bid to replace its management? If I were in a management position at the Dutch rail I would be worried.
With a 90 minute delay a train showed up. But is was not a German high-speed ICE that we planned and paid for. It was a 'classic' Dutch train from the Eisenhower-era that should be in a museum instead of replacing the pride of Deutsche Bahn.
On the platform we met an Asian woman who was trying to get to Berlin but had missed the overnight train because of the ongoing railway disinformation campaign that night. She had gone to the International desk to ask for assistance and the Dutch railway people had printed out some info their Dutch railway planner spat out. Info that was by now wholly unusable because of the 90 minute delay of the alternative train they had advised her. The Dutch railway planner (www.ns.nl) includes some German trains but only those with connections to the Netherlands. Had they used a browser and gone to the Deutsche Bahn site (bahn.de) or put their excellent free app on a phone they could have told her take the right train from Oberhausen to Dortmund where she could catch up with the night train and still make Berlin in time. With a fellow passenger I could figure out a workable route for her and she made the connection.
How is sad it that a passenger on the platform has better real-time information through a free Deutsche Bahn app and twitter (track #ns) than the International desk at the biggest Dutch railway station?
Dutch railway clients are fighting not just price increases, delays and canceled trains but also the vast incompetence of the railway management in making available free tools to their staff to provide what stranded passengers need most: real-time accurate information that will help them find alternative ways of getting to their destinations.
It was only after crossing the border at Emmerich that we could switch to a proper ICE train, stretch out on reclining seats and plug-in our hungry computers.
As a Dutch person I am sorry to say our national railway company has fallen so far behind, that passengers are best off ignoring most of the information provided in the stations and use smart phones or other mobile devices to collect and cross-reference real-time information on train-availability and timing.
Twittering when trains actually leave key stations or when they are running delays could be a great gift to fellow travelers you may never meet. For some reason the fact that we have had these things called 'winters' in North-Western Europe for the last 40 million years has not reached the tiny dinosaur brains of the railway senior management. So as long as those dinosaurs remain in charge we're better off helping each other out in a peer-to-peer, distributed way. Perhaps this will shame the incompetents into action eventually. And if not, then there's always pitchforks and torches.