Category: Travel

Metra is confusing, part 57 – Boarding trains at low-use stations

Of the many things Metra does to discourage ridership, here’s a new one to me: You go up to the platform towards your destination and there’s a sign that says “your train might actually stop at the other platform, which is entered from the other side of the street”.

I was with two friends and we were planning to board a Metra UP-West train to Geneva, Illinois, to start a bike ride on the Fox River Trail.

What the sign actually says, as you can see in the photo, is “Notice! Some trains from Chicago board from opposite platform”, but I think my interpretation is accurate.

The sign at the station increases stress. It would be slightly more helpful if there was another sign that said which trains this situation would apply to.

We brought our bikes up to the platform that was labeled “trains from Chicago”, which Metra has labeled “Platform 2”. Union Pacific, which runs their freight trains and operates Metra’s trains, is a left-running railroad in Chicago, meaning trains run on the left track in the direction of travel.

A minute after we settled in to wait 10 minutes for the train, we noticed the sign. A freight train started down this track, and we’re wondering, “is this freight train the clearest indication that we should head now to the other platform?”

We even tried to deduce which track the outbound train would run on by watching signals (one will eventually turn green).

The container freight train passed our platform, preventing a Metra train from arriving there. But maybe the freight train would clear the tracks soon enough for the outbound Metra train to stop here?

When it looked like the freight train wasn’t gonna clear the track in time, we moved to the other platform. It’s good we did. About 1 or 2 minutes before the train arrived, an announcement confirmed our choice of platforms. Phew!

What made this maneuver of ours between platforms complicated was that we had bikes and it takes an extra moment to carry them down and back up stairs.

While the Metra approached and started slowing down, there was just the slightest fear it wasn’t actually going to stop. The train had more coaches than necessary for the demand and only the last car opened. So you watch like 7 coaches pass by.

This being the Kedzie station on UP-West, we were probably three of 10 riders here this whole week. In the current schedule, only 41 percent of the weekday trains stop here.

The announcement of the boarding platform was hard to hear over the freight train noise, the platform identification sign for “Platform 1” – the middle platform – took a moment to see and verify. But, and here’s the clincher to this part of the story, the announcement didn’t come with enough slack for us to have “run” over to the correct platform – with our bikes – and not feel stressed about what should be a seamless ride-up-to-the-platform-and-board start to the trip.

Photo from “Platform 1” (a center platform) with our arriving Metra train on the left and the freight train that ended up stopping in front of the original platform we ascended.

We took the last outbound train of the morning that stops at Kedzie to Geneva. Then we biked south on the beautiful Fox River Trail to Aurora. We missed the train and didn’t want to wait 2 hours (😬) for the next one so we biked northeast to Wheaton along the Illinois Prairie Path’s Aurora Branch and made it on that inbound train just in time to go home.

A map of our journey shows the 25 mile bike route from Geneva to Aurora via the Fox River Trail (cycling mostly on the west bank), and from Aurora to Wheaton via the Illinois Prairie Path’s Aurora Branch. Interurban trains used to run along both trails.

We saw a new piece of “regional” infrastructure on our trip, a new pedestrian and bike bridge over the Fox River in Aurora, Illinois. The verdict on their brand new pedestrian & bike bridge is…it’s very cool. I wish it had greenery, though.

The brand new Riveredge Park Pedestrian Bridge was opened on June 11, 2021.

The bridge is characterized by a large, central, vertical concrete beam that provides the structural spans. At the ends of the bridge, the beam separates the walking and biking paths, but at the center the decks rise up while the beam appears to drop down and there’s an open and combined deck at the center. The deck is also widened at the center so that there’s some gathering space outside of the paths of travel.

The deck rises up and the center structural beam appears to drop down as you reach the center of the span. The dropped beam creates some bench seating. The center seam is for illuminating the space above the bridge. Behind the photographer is an opening between the center beam to create a gathering space and a crossover point.

How to bike out to the Fox River Trolley Museum

Visiting the Fox River Trolley Museum is a fun day trip for anyone who likes Chicago train history or trolleys and streetcars generally. The FRTM is free to browse, and rides cost $5 each or pay $8 for unlimited rides (adult prices).

A Chicago Aurora and Elgin interurban electric train
Decades ago, it was possible to ride this Chicago Aurora & Elgin train all the way Batavia, Illinois, from Chicago. The CA&E’s former right of way is now the Illinois Prairie Path, the first rails-to-trails project in the United States.

The museum is not accessible to people with disabilities. It’s open Sundays from May to October and some holidays (check their calendar). The museum has two portable restrooms, but I recommend using the permanent and spacious ones in County Park.

Trip option 1, the short and direct option: Take Metra’s MD-West line to National Street and bike 15 minutes south along the Fox River Trail. The trail passes County Park, where there’s a playground, restrooms, and bike parking. Lock your bike here and walk on the gravel path from the park to the outdoor museum.

Trip option 2a, the really convenient option: Have a friend who loves planning multi-modal bike trips dig into the Metra schedules and send calendar invitations to everyone in the group so there’s great expectations as to when and where the trip starts and ends. Thank you, D.S.!

Trip option 2b, the longer one that incorporates more cycling: Take Metra’s BNSF line to Aurora Transportation Center (ATC). The BNSF line has Metra’s new bike cars on specific runs (check the schedules). This is important because it means you can bike with a larger group of people than before since your group’s size is less subject to capacity constraints for bikes on standard Metra trains – without bike cars – and unpredictable directions from Metra conductors. Additionally, on standard Metra trains, the posted bike capacity may be inaccurate if the conductors have not opened all of the coaches.

This is the bike car on Metra's BNSF line, at the Aurora Transportation Center
This is the bike car on Metra’s BNSF line, at the Aurora Transportation Center.

After disembarking at the ATC, ride to the north side of the center towards the river and use the signalized intersection to cross the high-speed road to the Fox River Trail. From here on out you’ll be following the FRT northward via its off-street and on-street sections. The trail is mostly off-street, so that’s fun, and it’s nice to have so much shade.

You can basically just bike north and follow the FRT signs but you may want to review a trail map ahead of time because it’s often possible to bike on either side of the Fox River and there are advantages to riding on one side over the other in some segments. For example, from downtown Batavia north to Fabyan Villa, I prefer the west side. At Fabyan Villa you’ll have to switch to the east side.

From Aurora, look for FRT direction signs that say “Batavia”, and then “Geneva”, and then “St. Charles”, and finally “South Elgin”. I believe the only option for cycling through downtown St. Charles is on-street, and there are some hills on its FRT street sections so be prepared or look for an alternative route.

This is as good a point as any to mention that you could shorten the bike trip by taking Metra’s UP-West line to Geneva, which is north of Aurora, and heading on downhill streets to the riverfront and crossing the pedestrian bridge underneath the Metra tracks to join the Fox River Trail on the east side to head north.

My two friends and I ate at Flagship on the Fox, an American restaurant and pub with seating indoors, on a covered patio, and outdoors. The Flagship Burger, with onion rings, avocado, bacon, and white cheddar cheese was delicious. Next door is Pollyanna Brewing Company, but which doesn’t sell food.

A lot of the FRT follows the old Aurora, Elgin and Fox River electric railway line! Can you believe that there used to be interurban trains running up and down the Fox River connecting the towns there (which I mentioned above)?

The Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Electric was an interurban offering both freight and passenger service between Yorkville and Carpenter, Illinois. Operations began as early as 1895 and closely followed the Fox River for its entire route. It underwent several mergers and names over its lifetime before eventually becoming 40 miles in length and operating two streetcar services in Aurora and Elgin.

As with most interurbans, the AE&FR was overtaken by buses and the automobile, and passenger service was discontinued in 1935. Freight service continued along portions of the route up until 1972.

AbandonedRails.com

The AE&FR ran on the Fox River’s west bank from Aurora to St. Charles, where it switched to the east bank. On approach to South Elgin, however, and due to a big bend in the Fox River, it kept going straight and found itself on the west bank again.

A bend in the Fox River moves the AE&FR interurban line from the east bank to the west bank again.
The former AE&FR bridge crossing the bend in the Fox River is now part of the Fox River Trail. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

A minute or two after crossing the bend in the Fox River on the former interurban’s bridge, you’ll encounter the southern end of the Fox River Trolley Museum’s demonstration track. Less than 10 minutes later and you’ll be arriving at County Park where I recommend parking your bike.

What’s the timing on this? I don’t know. My friends and I took our time cycling and stopping for photos and eating. The relaxed riding nearly prevented us from being able to ride a trolley. The museum runs a trolley once an hour every hour, and we arrived a few minutes after the most recent trolley left the station. We needed to be in Elgin to ride Metra’s MD-West line back to Chicago at 15:55, and the next full ride would take so long that we would miss that train, and since it’s Sunday, it’s safe to assume that the next Metra train runs two hours later.

The volunteer staff at the museum were sympathetic to our case and created a special charter for just the three of us! The two operators and an apprentice took us on a shortened journey down the line, from Castlemuir (the home station) to a switching yard of sorts halfway down the line. The yard is where trains could be rerouted to a track that joined up with former Illinois Central tracks going east-west.

Our motley crew. Eric captioned this, “NBD just a private excursion along the Fox River in an old North Shore Line car!” Photo taken by one of the qualified train operators.

We rode the former North Shore Line car 715. This car used to run between Chicago and several cities along the North Shore, including Evanston and Willmette (where the Chicago Transit Authority’s Purple Line runs now), Skokie (where the CTA’s Yellow Line runs), and further north to Milwaukee. Check out the North Shore Line’s route map on the Northwestern University Transportation Library’s website.

Former North Shore Line car 715 at the Fox River Trolley Museum

You would have also seen car 715 running around the Chicago elevated loop, and making stops at the existing Belmont and Wilson elevated stations (although both of those have been replaced and tracks re-aligned for slightly faster service).

Once you’re done enjoying the historic trains at the FRTM, get back on the Metra and go home. Check out Elgin’s riverfront if you have to wait, and there are restaurants in downtown Elgin.

Elgin, Illinois, riverfront

The on-time trains and wonderful transit workers of Japan

I’m watching this mini-doc about the Tokyo Metro subway and they focus on customer service for a few minutes. They don’t explain why there’s a need to have so many staff at each station dedicated to customer service, aside from the plethora of passengers. I think one of the reasons is that the system is so vast and complex that so many people always have questions. Indeed I saw many Japanese confused or looking for where to go.

I experienced some of this great customer service myself. (In the video, skip to 14:00 to watch the segment on customer service training.)

I was at Ōmiya station in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo, and I wanted to ride the New Shuttle a short distance from Omiya to Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan to visit the Railway Museum, but I first wanted to get a “Suica” reloadable smart card so I didn’t have to keep buying single-ride tickets.

The scene outside Ōmiya station is a lot of mixed-use and malls

Oddly I noticed at least five different kinds of ticket vending machines at different stations. They all will display in English, and a sign above each lists some of its functions. There are many overlapping machines. After I tried to buy one with one machine I asked a worker how I can buy a Suica card.

Ōmiya station (JR side)

He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Japanese but his colleague understood my unaccented pronunciation of Suica, and informed him what I was looking for.

People wait in prescribed queues for the New Shuttle

It turns out that the machines at the New Shuttle “side” (more on this later) of the Omiya station don’t sell new Suica cards. The man walked me over to the JR side of the station and introduced me and my problem to a Japan Railways East worker. This second man spoke English and guided me through buying a personalized Suica card; a card with my name printed on it.

What was impressive was that the first man walked with me 570 feet away to the other side of the station, where he doesn’t work, instead of trying to point me in a direction. Even if he could verbally describe where I should go, that still wouldn’t solve my problem of obtaining a card because I would still probably have to ask someone else.

My personal Suica card for transit and convenience stores in Japan

This wasn’t unique in being “walked” to a destination. The next day in Chiba I bought a bento box “lunch set” (complete meal with veggies, meat, and rice) in the food hall of the Sogo department store, where there are dozens of independent shops selling fresh food.

After I bought the food I wanted to know where there was a place to eat it. Again, I didn’t speak Japanese and the woman who sold me the food didn’t speak English. I mimed my problem, by looking around, pointing, and making an eating motion. She nodded and walked me over to a small eating area at the edge of the food hall.

In Taiwan my host advised me that this would happen, and she also said to not hesitate asking someone for help. It happened one time in Taipei, but I don’t remember the circumstances. In a separate and similar occasion, however, a worker at the Taipei Discovery Center (which is similar to the city gallery in Singapore, Hong Kong, and many cities in China) approached me while I studied an exhibit. He talked to me about Taipei history, what I had seen so far during my visit (nothing, as this was my first stop on day one), what I planned to see (a lot), and then recommended more things for me to see (I checked out a couple things).

Station sides

I measured the 570 distance the New Shuttle worker walked with me to introduce me to a JR East worker who showed me how to buy a Suica card. Transit in Japan is privately operated and New Shuttle is one company (Saitama New Urban Transit Co., Ltd.) that operates one part of a station, and JR East operates the majority of the station. Tobu Railway also operates the station because it terminates a single commuter line here. Depending on how you look at it they are separate buildings but when you’re inside transferring from one to another there’s no distinction; the building connections are seamless.

Looking back on my winter holiday in Europe two months ago

A pretty tram in Budapest

A tram travels along the Danube river in Budapest, Hungary

I’ve posted a few articles about my trip to four countries in Europe over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, so this is purely a recap to link to them.

I visited Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Germany again, and Switzerland. It was a multimodal trip by train and plane, and some local transit buses. There are hundreds of captioned photos on my Flickr, but check out these three articles:

  • Five common “best practices” that every city with a high-use transit system in Europe has that the transit agencies in Chicagoland should adopt.
  • Day 1 in Switzerland on Mapzen’s Transitland blog – I discuss how amazingly interconnected Swiss public transport systems are, and how their single schedule data source makes it possible to get a route for a journey from Zürich to the top of a nearby mountain via four modes of public transport.
  • Day 2 in Switzerland where I spent a lot of time riding trams, buses, funiculars, and a cog railway to get around Zürich and visit a couple of museums.

 

Day two in Zurich: Combine transit and museums on a single pass

Zurich, Switzerland

I was taking pictures of the tram and when I got home I saw that all three people were staring at my camera. At Bellevue in Zurich.

The post for day 1, Friday, when I went to Mount Rigi, hasn’t been written yet. 

Today was a busy day, which is expected when you travel Steven Vance-style: efficiently (meaning you see a lot of stuff without wasting any time), alone, with a very good sense of what you want to do, where they are, and how you’ll get around.

I’m staying at Hotel Bristol, which came up in an Orbitz search as being a decent place less than $100 per night – that’s hard in Zurich, and even harder if you want a place near the Hauptbahnhof (Hbf). I knew that’s where I would be coming and going a few times to get to Lucerne, the mountains, or to buy cheap (relatively) dinner.

This morning, after eating a continental breakfast in the hotel, I walked a couple of blocks from the hotel to the Hbf – I’m measuring blocks in a Chicago-sense. It was about 4-5 minutes to the nearest station entrance to buy the ZurichCard.

Getting the card was a no-brainer because for 24 CHF (Swiss Francs, about $25) you get a 24-hour public transit card and free entry to dozens of museums. It includes the city zone and the adjacent zones, including the airport. I have to leave for the airport tomorrow by 10 AM and I validated the card at 11 AM so I’m covered there.

After checking out and riding the city’s two funiculars and single rack railway, I visited the tram museum and national museum (Landesmuseum). Add to that the dozens of trams and buses I rode to reach the hill transport and two museums.

Consider that the cost of the train to the airport is 6.40 CHF, the tram museum is 12 CHF, and the Landesmuseum charges 10 CHF, I’d say I got more than my money’s worth.

What’s really great about the ZurichCard is that you can purchase it at any of ticket vending machine, including the ones labeled “SBB CFF FFS”* that also sell national railway and supra-regional tickets. You have to remember to validate the card right before your first use, either at a ZVV (Zurich regional public transport union) ticket vending machine.

My first transit trip this morning was on a fantastic double-articulated bus. That means it has three sections with five doors! These buses are only used on routes 31 and 33 in the city center, and they’re electric and silent, running on overhead trolley wire. The bus has the same priority and comfort as a tram, and multiple screens attached to the ceiling showing the next stop and its connections (transfers).

Zurich, Switzerland

The front two sections of a bi-articulated bus. It’s normally not possible to bring a bike on a bus or tram in Europe, except when the bus has been specially outfitted for the bike to be on the inside. Buses in Europe aren’t allowed to have bike racks on the front.

The tram system in the city center is the perfect complement and support for having so little driving here. Some of the streets restrict driving, and other streets have only a single lane in one direction, or just two lanes, one in each direction. Many of the major intersections within a mile of the Hbf surprisingly have no traffic controls.

Trams and buses load and unload passengers very fast because you can board through any door. “Winter mode” is enabled on many of the vehicles to keep passengers already on board more comfortable by opening doors at the stop only upon request (you push a button on the door).

Streetfilms published a video in 2014 discussing how the city administration has capped the number of parking spaces across the city: if a new parking space is built, a parking space has to be removed in the city center.

Driving in the city center is thus primarily for leaving your parking space for elsewhere in the city or region, or the reverse. Trips are extremely convenient by tram or trolley bus.

Motorists are obliged to stop for people who want to cross the road in zebra crossings, and trams which are turning across the lanes. Then, unless a road sign or marking dictates the priority of a lane, the rule “yield to the motorist on your right” reigns.

I never waited more than 7 minutes for a tram (I know because the countdown signs never exceeded 7 minutes for the route I was going to ride) and the average was probably closer to 4 minutes. It seems that a majority of the time trams run in exclusive right of way and traffic signals are set up to prioritize their movement.

Transit signal priority isn’t a given in all cities with trams; in Amsterdam and Budapest it seemed the tram waited just as long for a “green” light as adjacent, same-direction motorists did.

At the tram museum I talked to a staffer there who was pointing out features in a model created by a city task force which was investigating a potential U-bahn (underground) system for Zurich. He said that a couple of years ago the museum hosted an event to talk about whether the city was better off without the system.

The consensus amongst the attendees was that the city was indeed better off without a subway because the trams have a higher frequency than what the subway would have had. Another point made was that the connections between trams are easier and faster than between other modes.

Nevertheless, a few underground stations were built, but they aren’t subways. Two tracks, 21 and 22, carry the two routes of the Sihltal Zürich Uetliberg Bahn (SZU), One goes up the Uetliberg mountain in the city and the other serves the Sihl valley suburbs. There are also three underground tram stations away from the city center on line 7.

Traffic on the local transit was lighter than yesterday. Many riders I saw today were headed to a hill to go sledding. It might also be a coincidence that I rode all three hill-climbing funicular and rack railway lines, as well as the train that goes up “Mount Zurich” (870 meters; its real name is Uetliberg).

The Dolderbahn heads up the hill from Romerhof to the Dolder recreation area. At least half of the passengers today were children going with their parents and friends to sled down a hill there.

The Dolderbahn is a rack (cog) railway that heads up the Adlisberg mountain from Römerhof to the Dolder recreation area. At least half of the passengers today were children going with their parents and friends to sled down a hill there.

The last word on Zurich: It’s very expensive to eat here. I paid 11.50 CHF (about the same in USD) for a “döner box” which is something I paid about $5 in Rotterdam. A döner box is fast food. The cheap beer that went along with it was $5, which I could probably get for less than $2 in Rotterdam.

* “SBB CFF FFS” is a set of three acronyms that when expanded mean “Swiss Federal Railways” in German, French, and Italian, respectively. It’s normally abbreviated to SBB – German is the most commonly spoken language in Switzerland. Each of the acronyms plus dot “ch” has its own website that loads the organization’s website in the respective language.

Day trips from Amsterdam

This is a list of day trips that you can take from Amsterdam. We might have different ideas of what constitutes the duration of the day. Once I get to a city I “travel quickly”: I walk fast, bike fast, and don’t linger too often at a point of interest, so I can see lots of places. This advice assumes you’ll arrive into the city center (where the train stations are) between 10 and 11 AM.

Naarden and Hilversum

Visit “vesting” Naarden (Naarden fort) to see a star-shaped fortress from the 1600s. You can take a bus or bike there from the train station.

Hilversum is a richer city and has a lot of typically Dutch architecture, especially of buildings designed by Richard Dudok. Go here if you’re in the TV and radio industries. You’ll need a bike if you want to see even half of them. A lot of them are schools and apartment buildings.

These two cities are a <15 minute train ride away from each other, with trains every 15 minutes.

Haarlem

Haarlem is a short ride from Amsterdam and has a working windmill museum, near a panopticon-style prison. Perhaps stop here on your way to Zandvoort an Zee (beach resort).

Rotterdam

Get here early and leave late. Take the Intercity Direct to the city by 10 AM. That’s the high-speed train, and don’t forget to pay for or buy the “toeslag” (supplement) and you’ll get there about 30 minutes faster for a minor extra cost. Or, take the slower, scenic route there in the morning and the fast route back to your lodging in Amsterdam at night.

Rotterdam is a very large city and has a lot to do. Rent a bike from Zwaan Bikes in Groothandelsgebouw on the next block west of the train station (my favorite in the world).

Go on the 75-minute long harbor tour operated by Spido that starts on the northwest side of the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus bridge).

In the evening, grab a bite to eat at Fenix Foods Factory and get a beer from Kaapse Brouwers in the same converted warehouse building.

Delft

Delft is a very pretty city to walk around. It’s very touristic so you will see a lot of shops selling the local blue porcelain. I bought lavender goat cheese here, and it was delicious. Climb the steps to the top of the cathedral in the Grote Markt (main square). If you like architecture, head over to the university, TU Delft. You can walk there from city center in less than 20 minutes.

Eat at Huszár which is a couple “blocks” south of the train station.

The Hague – beach alert!

If you don’t go to the beach, you could do Delft and The Hague in the same day, providing you aren’t spending time at museums and you have a bicycle to move a little quicker. Walk through the royal palace, Binnenhof.

Take a tram or a bike to the beach at Scheveningen.

Zandvoort an Zee – beach alert!

This is a small beach resort town on the North Sea. Walk from the train station to the beach and keep walking until you find a beach lounge you like. Then grab a seat and order a drink (it’ll take a while for someone to come over, so find a menu yourself because it’s typical for a Dutch server to not bother bringing you one unless you ask for it).

Almere

This one’s only for people who want to see a New Town in the Netherlands, or are really curious to know and see how polder works, and how the Dutch reclaimed an entire province from a sea (which is now a lake). Research the history: IJsselmeer, Zuiderzee, Flevoland (the province)

Essential apps for traveling in parts of Europe

Train Radar

The Train Radar in Reisplanner Xtra (from NS, the Dutch intercity train operator) is a fun feature to show you trains nearby. The rest of the app is essential for efficient use of NS trains.

I’ve used a bunch of apps that are necessary when you’re traveling within and between countries in the parts of Europe I’m staying in an visiting this year.

The first app you should install is maps.me (iOS, Android, Amazon). It stores maps offline by downloading them from OpenStreetMap. Before leaving for the next city, download it on wifi! Each city takes up 25-60 MB on your phone, and it’s easy to delete a city’s map after you depart. This app is super fast, looks nice, has offline route planning, and can show any area in the world.

Travel apps for the Netherlands

  • Reisplanner Xtra, is essential because it has a journey planner for traveling within the country. It also shows real-time information, and even has a map of all the trains running in the country at that moment. It lists real-time OV-fiets bike availability.
  • NS International, for looking up timetables for trains between the Netherlands and France, Germany, and Belgium. You can’t buy tickets in the app, but it will link you to a shopping cart on the NS International website.
  • 9292.nl, journey planner app for all public transport in the Netherlands. It doesn’t have network maps, though, if you’re only interested in where the Rotterdam Metro goes.

maps.me gets data from OpenStreetMap, the wiki-style map that regular people around the world edit (including myself). The map improves as more people add more information!

maps.me gets data from OpenStreetMap, the wiki-style map that regular people around the world edit (including myself). The map improves as more people add more information!

Travel apps for Germany

  • DB Navigator, this has all public transport in Germany, including intercity trains. It even has intercity trains for so many other countries, regardless if that train has service in Germany. When you look up timetables for trains outside Germany, it will rarely be able to show you the price, but just seeing the schedule, and what trains are available, is important. You can buy tickets within the app, and use the app as a mobile ticket.

Other travel apps

  • Rome2rio, is remarkable because it will show you all ways to get between two cities, and it works worldwide. It incorporates timetables and maps from local transit systems, intercity coach buses, intercity trains, flights, and driving. It’s multimodal, too. It won’t book tickets, but it’s the only service I know of that focuses on showing the multitude of options – simultaneously, with prices! – for future travel planning. And it’s super fast – I think it’s getting results before you even push the “search” button.

Rome2rio showing directions between Stockholm and Malmo

Rome2rio shows results for all modes (and combined modes) between two cities, here listing 11 options on trains, buses, cars, and plans between Stockholm and Mälmo, Sweden.

  • Skyscanner, this flight-finding service has more intra-Europe airlines than services popular in the United States (like Hipmunk, Orbitz, and KAYAK).
  • Captain Train is a continental train ticketing company with a nice app that will sell you tickets for service within and between many countries.
  • Voyages-sncf, is useful if you’ll be taking fast or regular intercity trains in France, but I don’t believe it has mobile ticketing. However, you can buy tickets in the app or on the website and pick up the tickets at a vending machine at many train stations in France. This is where I bought a Thalys (high-speed train) ticket; it’s better than NS International and the Belgian equivalent from SNCB.
  • United, this airline has implemented a superior entertainment system. I call it “Netflix in the sky”. To be clear, Netflix isn’t involved. It works like this: Install the United app on your device, and then connect to the airplane’s wifi network. There’s a server in the plane that has a lot of movies and TV shows, and these stream directly to your device. This is especially useful in United’s older 767 planes that don’t have seatback screens (IFE).

What apps do you recommend and why?

I’m here in Rotterdam

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I arrived in Rotterdam last Saturday, 9 April. A friend of a friend, PK, picked me up at Rotterdam Centraal, the main station, the design of which I find fucking fantastic. By “picked me up”, he really did. He used his fancy “OV-chipkaart” multi-use transit card with associated “OV-fiets” bike-share membership to check out two bikes for me and him. I carried two pieces of my luggage, and he carried a third, and we biked back to my friend DS’s apartment. (PK had been living there temporarily while he looked for an apartment somewhere in the country.)

I’m posting frequent updates to my Tumblr. And my photos get automatically uploaded to Flickr. I also post photos to Instagram, and to Twitter.

All the luggage I brought for three months in Europe

PK let me into the apartment and then we went to the Albert Heijn grocery store. PK soon departed to catch a train to another city for a birthday party. I took a three hour nap. I didn’t do anything else on Saturday. DS would return from his holiday on Monday evening.

  • On Sunday I biked around the city.
  • On Monday I met with Meredith, an expat living in Amsterdam. I also slept a bunch off and on. DS came home and we went out to dinner. We also went back to the grocery store and tried to figure out why neither my debit nor credit card would work. Albert Heijn, since I was there in September 2015, has changed their machines and policy and won’t accept my bank cards!
  • On Tuesday I met with my friend Stefan. I found “Bataviakade” in Delfshaven. And slept at odd hours. I fell asleep on the couch at 20:00 and went to bed at around 00:00.
  • On Wednesday I slept until 13:00. I then followed up on some emails, fixed some stuff on Chicago Cityscape, and vacuumed the carpets. Then DS and I went out for beers and burgers. On our way home I bought a six-pack of (small cans) Heineken beer for €7 at a “night shop” called, well, “Night Shop.”

Bataviakade street name in Delfshaven, Rotterdam

“Bataviakade” means “Batavia quay”. I grew up in a city called Batavia, Illinois. The city was named after Batavia, New York. Batavia is the Latin word for the “Betuwe” part of the Netherlands.

It’s now Thursday and I’m going to try and open a bank account here. This means I’ll get a debit card which will open so many doors; many places don’t accept international bank cards. It also means I can pay rent and for a bicycle without lower or no fees. After I get a bank account I can get a discount travel card to use on NS, the national intercity train operator.

For €99 per month I can take unlimited trips on the intercity trains during off-peak hours and on weekends. I’ll be able to visit a lot more cities with this card, and I already have plans to use the train tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday (that’s three round trips). The train fares add up! At least this weekend I’ll be traveling with DS; he has a travel card and companions can buy travel together with a 40% discount.

I didn’t get to publish this before I left the house. I went to the bank and the kind worker said it wasn’t possible to open a bank account for someone who’s staying here for such a short time. She said there’s a monthly maintenance fee, and I said I would be okay paying that while I’m not in the Netherlands between visits.

Anyway, my friend is going to help me get the discount travel card, which, to me, is the most important product I need.

I also need to file my American tax return today.

There was no contest: I had to visit the Netherlands again

Me bicycling on the Hovenring in Eindhoven

Me bicycling on the Hovenring in Eindhoven. It’s the world’s first, floating bicycle roundabout. It’s a gratuitous way to solve the problem the city had at this intersection outside the built up area. Despite its frivolity, it wasn’t as expensive as something that solves a similar problem in the United States. 6.3 million euros in 2012. The Navy Pier Flyover in Chicago is over $60 million in 2014.

In my last trip to Europe, which concluded three weeks ago, I hadn’t yet scheduled where I would stay on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights on my final full week (I came home the following Tuesday).

On that Monday I was in Barcelona but my mother was going back home and I had to move on. On Thursday I was going to be in Bonn.

“Where should I go?” I debated. I considered Morocco (that was a complicated journey and I didn’t want to go alone), and Salzburg or Austria. Then, after talking to a couple before and during my trip I decided I would stay in Lyon, France.

Once I was in Seville, though, right before heading to Barcelona, I started looking at possible journeys from Barcelona to Lyon. They weren’t looking good. They were cheap, but the timing was bad – flights weren’t frequent enough, departed and arrived at odd times, and the train journeys were long.

But “timing” turned out to be just an excuse to avoid having to go to France and skip going to the Netherlands. I really wanted to go to the Netherlands. It wasn’t possible for me to skip visiting some Dutch friends and the greatest country for transportation and utility cycling. I still had more things to see there!

Rotterdam Centraal (train station)

My favorite train station in Europe: Rotterdam Centraal.

My friend Daniel in Rotterdam was available to host me for a couple nights. There was no contest anymore: I booked a flight on Vueling from Barcelona to Rotterdam, just 90 minutes away. And he was even going to pick me up at the tiny airport so we could take the bus to the central train station and get me an OV-fiets bicycle (it’s the national bike-sharing system that requires a Dutch bank account to rent).

On this trip to the Netherlands, though, I only added one new Dutch city: Eindhoven, where I had to see the Hovenring. I paid an arm and a leg to get there – thanks, expensive intercity Dutch train travel prices!

So here’re the 16 cities where I’ve stayed or visited in the Netherlands, in chronological order:

  • Amsterdam (2011, 2012, 2014)
  • Utrecht (2011, 2015)
  • Houten (2011)
  • Zandvoort an Zee (2012)
  • Den Haag/The Hague (2012)
  • Delft (2014)
  • Den Bosch/s’Hertogenbosch (2014)
  • Nijmegen (2014)
  • Arnhem (2014)
  • Groningen (2014)
  • Veendam, Bourtange (Spanish fort) (2014)
  • Leeuwarden (2014)
  • Haarlem (2014)
  • Rotterdam (2014, 2015)
  • Delft (2014, 2015)
  • Eindhoven (2015)

The list excludes cities I only transited or biked through. I’ve transited through Venlo half a dozen times by now. It’s on the German border. It’s a tiny station, tiny town, but has a lot of intercity traffic. I’ve biked through Pijnacker twice, now: once while biking from Rotterdam to Delft in 2014, and the second time, in 2015, I took the metro there and biked the rest of the way to Delft (this time to see the new train station).

I’ve also biked to the Hook of Holland in 2014; not the city, but the port, canal, and to see the Maeslantkering, a flood barrier that’s part of Delta Works.

What’s up from Europe: how much is car-free when cycling on a Dutch intercity path?

I posted this photo of Daniel riding with me from Rotterdam to Delft and Justin Haugens asked, “Was this a bike path the whole way?” and added, “[This] would be similar to my work commute.” He rides on the Chicago Lakefront Trail from Rogers Park to South Loop, but must ride off-path from Morse to Ardmore and about Monroe to Roosevelt.

Daniel lives in Rotterdam and works in Delft. The Dutch Cyclists’ Union’s (Fietsersbond) Routeplanner says the shortest path is 11.47 kilometers, or 7.12 miles. We took the short route on a Saturday, but chose the scenic route on Sunday (the day I took this photo) so Daniel could show me the airport, underground high-speed rail tracks, and various geographic features along the way.

I responded to Justin:

It was a dedicated bike path for probably 90% of the way. The thing about Dutch intercity cycle routes is that they separate cycle paths from car paths when the two modes can’t safely share. They can’t safely share when there’s a desire for moving cars quickly or moving big autos (like trucks and buses).

So, there were some points on this journey when the cycle-only path merged with a local road or a service drive [the case in that photo, actually, which you can see better here], but even then the cyclist always has priority and rarely are the junctions configured/signed so that the cyclist has to stop (not requiring the cyclist to stop is a way to make cycling a convenient mode).

In the Netherlands connectivity of bicycle-priority ways is as important as the infrastructure used. When I first visited the Netherlands, in 2010, I arrived in Amsterdam from Bremen, Germany, and rented a bike the next day. I was personally shocked that morning when I rode upon streets with conventional bike lanes (these would be the ones in door zones in the United States) on some streets.

Why was I shocked? I came to the city under the impression that all bicycle infrastructure were cycle tracks, meaning a bike path between the roadway and the sidewalk, on a level slightly above the roadway and below the sidewalk. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about why the Dutch cycle so much and how the bicycle is sometimes used more often than public transit and automobiles.

On our journey from Rotterdam to Delft we must have ridden on every kind of bicycle path the Dutch have designed. These photos sample what we encountered.

The route followed an arterial road for the first portion, but we turned off after only about a mile.

An RET metro train follows the cycle path for a portion of the route we took.

This was my favorite part of the journey to Delft: we came across a shepherd, her two sheep dogs, and her flock of sheep grazing on the bank between the cycle path and the creek.

I’m no longer in Europe but I’ve kept the title prefix, “What’s up from Europe”. Read the other posts in this series