Boris Johnson is reported as saying that the railways do not need ticket offices. Users of the Far North Line already know about this. But what would you think if Inverness had no ticket office? In The Netherlands only the largest stations now have a ticket office; but the whole set-up there is very different from Britain. Forty years ago I lived in Alkmaar when there were ticket offices on Dutch stations; but recently I went back and found great changes. Before getting to the business of tickets, I'll describe how things differ from Britain.
As in Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia, The Netherlands has a totally integrated public transport system. When the annual timetables are prepared the operation is done for all the trains, buses, trams and ferries, and connectivity is paramount. In Alkmaar, as in most towns, the bus station is outside the railway station. When I lived there, every half hour all the trains arrived within a five minute period, waited up to five minutes and then departed. More than that, the northbound trains to Den Helder and Hoorn were across the platform from one another, and likewise the southbound trains to Amsterdam and Haarlem, making for easy changes. Simultaneously the buses arrived and departed, so connections between bus and train were easy, and that's still so. Perhaps if you were in a hurry to get to Den Helder you might think it was a nuisance that the train waited in Alkmaar for five minutes, but this was accepted. Those of you who have been to Switzerland will know that the Swiss are even more slick at doing this than the Dutch. I have not cited the current train service in Alkmaar because, as in Britain, there have been some reductions because of the effects of the pandemic.
And if you use the Nederlandse Spoorwegen's (NS = Dutch Railways) app on your mobile phone, you will find that, as well as all Dutch stations being listed, every single bus stop is there as well: So during my recent holiday when I also went to Zutphen I was able to plan my journey home from Zutphen station to the bus stop in IJmuiden, close to the terminal for the ferry to North Shields. So very different from Britain, where every train company has its own web site, and some of them are very frustrating - the Avanti one does everything possible to prevent you buying an off-peak return ticket; so I always use the ScotRail site. In The Netherlands there are a number of different train companies - the NS looks after the main long distance trains, and other companies such as Arriva run many of the local branch lines; but they are all included in the NS journey planner.
Another important difference is that Dutch train fares are calculated on the basis of Euro cents per kilometre. Those old enough will remember that's how it used to be in this country (pence per mile) before BR introduced market pricing, making the more popular journeys more expensive; and which consequently led to the profusion of different types of tickets that we now have. In The Netherlands, as in Britain, there are reductions for frequent travellers and others holding discount cards. But the base fare is still cents per kilometre.
But how do you buy your ticket? There are two principal ways: you can buy on-line, or you can use the OV kaart. Buying on-line is very similar to Britain - you land up with a QR code on your mobile phone, which has to be scanned at the entrance gate to the station.
The OV kaart (OV - Openbare Vervoer = Public Transport) is a chip card. There is a charge of €7.50 to buy it, and at the same machine you can load it with credit. The machine will tell you how much credit is needed to get to your destination. It's also possible to buy OV cards at certain shops. There has to be a minimum credit of €20.00 to use the card on a train. You place it on a reader entering a station, or on a bus; and then again when getting off the bus, or leaving the station at your destination, and when you do you are informed of the remaining credit. Prominent at all stations are the yellow machines for buying and uploading the OV cards. The photograph of the forecourt at Hoorn, at the beginning of this article, shows one of the yellow ticket machines being used. These have replaced the ticket office in the old building.
In Britain the only place with anything like this is London (surprise?) with the timetables of buses and the Underground set by Transport for London (TfL), which contracts bus companies to run the services with all fares going to TfL; and then there's the Oyster card, very similar to the Dutch OV card.
One last thought. Since the time I lived in The Netherlands, the new polder (reclaimed land) Flevoland has been completed, with new towns like Almere; but the Dutch didn't just build new roads, there are also new railways. Similarly the Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden isn't just a road bridge: on the lower deck there's a railway. In those countries you couldn't imagine just building bridges exclusively for the A9 across the firths north of Inverness. And south of Inverness money is being found to dual the A9 while the Highland Main Line remains single track. The lack of imagination of successive UK governments when it comes to public transport is depressing. At least the Scottish Government is rather better, but perhaps that's not saying very much when you look at what happens across the North Sea.
We have to ask ourselves, is there any reason we can't do this here?
The UK, and to a lesser extent Scotland, seems to regard anything which reduces 'choice' with suspicion. The perceived virtues of 'competition' to bring down prices and enhance quality and choice have brought us to a transport 'system' in this country which must be a source of complete bafflement to visitors from The Netherlands, and elsewhere.
An excellent test of whether something is good the way it is, or needs to be changed, is to imagine changing it. For an example we could take an integrated transport system, such as that described here and consider whether it would be improved by taking various steps. Perhaps we could begin by abolishing the OV-chipkaart and replacing it with a multitude of separate ticketing systems for the various modes of transport. We could follow by demolishing the bus stations which exist adjacent to the railway stations and rebuilding them a ten-minute walk away. And so on and so on...