The International Steam Pages

“Our Friends the Dutch”

Robert Hall writes of an extended affectionate excursion through The Netherlands in 2011, there is a map afterwards which marks the major places named below:

The coined word of recent times – probably, courtesy of the Internet – “frenemy”. Describes rather well, the situation between many neighbouring nations throughout the world. Much historical bad stuff between them, but also plentiful good ditto, and ways in which despite mutual annoyance, they need each other. Greatly true as regards Britain and France; true also, re Britain and the Netherlands (Holland). In past centuries, bitter rivals for trade and occasionally at open war with each other (but still, mutual exchange of much that was positive); in more recent times, on friendlier terms, but still “sister nations” much alike in some ways, very different in others. That has applied regarding the two countries, inter alia in railway terms

Have already treated to some extent of The Netherlands, in my “Travellers’ Tales” piece “The Lowlands low”. As things worked out, The Netherlands was the venue of my first trip abroad, in 1963. From a gricing point of view, it would not have been my choice for such – delightful though I otherwise find the country and its people – but a choice was not offered. Assorted factors led to what would look likely to be my last foreign venture, in July 2011, rather symmetrically also being to The Netherlands – a week’s visit in company with a gricer friend, taking in several Dutch preserved railway operations, also sundry other features – some railway, some not – for a few of which, friend and I split up to do our separate things.

As mentioned in my piece in these “Tales”, referred to above – “which please see”, on occasion – the Second World War was nasty for The Netherlands, involving among much else, hideous damage to its railway network, “the little thereof as well as the great”. This meant, when peace came, basically a ruined system, which had to be largely rebuilt “from the get-go”. Sensibly, this was done in a context of making all main lines electric – electrification well into its stride on the state railways (NS) before the war; and lesser lines diesel. The process took time; some of the state railways’ mostly graceful and handsome steam locomotives which had survived the war, continued for a while in stop-gap use; supplemented by steam locos from other sources – bought from Sweden, where electrification had made them redundant; and British and American wartime “Austerity” locomotives of varying types and sizes. This was all a matter of short-term measures, until modernisation could be completed: NS’s final steam workings occurred in 1958. The nature of the country is such that even absent the extreme-war-damage factor, Dutch steam would have been unlikely to continue to a very late date; but had events gone otherwise, it might well have outlasted the 1950s.

The Netherlands’s once-multitudinous steam tramways and light railways, on various gauges – 1435mm, and less – already on the way out before WWII, suffered rather less in the war, than the state-railways system; they to some extent, however, did suffer. The generally woeful wartime experience means something of a shortage of truly Dutch-public-railways steam motive power, on present-day preserved lines in The Netherlands. The preservation scene – almost all 1435mm-gauge lines – has to rely mostly on locomotives acquired from Dutch industrial venues (in The Netherlands, as in very many countries, steam lasted longer in industrial service than on public railways); or on locos got from Germany, where regular-service steam lasted much longer than in The Netherlands. Most of the Dutch steam tramways and light railways perished earlier than their counterparts elsewhere in Western Europe; by the twentieth century’s mid-point, very few of them remained in service in any way or shape.

The Netherlands’s generally-reckoned premier preserved line, is that from Hoorn to Medemblik (1435mm gauge), some 40 km north of Amsterdam. The line markets itself as a “Stoomtram” – which I, with miserable-purist tendencies, am tempted to deplore because this line was essentially no kind of tramway; it was a private minor but conventional railway, on its own non-roadside reservation. Withdrew its passenger service in 1936; passenger briefly reinstated early in WWII, then ceased for keeps; railway continued in traffic for freight until the early 1970s, at which time the preservation society, following on from earlier negotiations, moved in. However, I am probably doing the curmudgeon bit, inappropriately here. Six kilometres out of Hoorn on the 20-km run to Medemblik, is the station of Wognum, a passing loop and pausing-place for the trains. In the happy days most of a century ago, Hoorn – Wognum was shared between the Medemblik line, and a steam-tramway undertaking whose route diverged westward at Wognum, and ran by roundabout ways, to Alkmaar – good enough for anyone able to summon up a spark of charity, to give a pass to the assumption of “tram” status for the present preserved line.

Especially in view of the preservation outfit having the best collection of operational authentically once-in-Dutch-public-service steam locos, available anywhere. Line has, per recently published info, four of same; of which we in our July 2011 visit, saw two in action. One was a delightful , tiny enclosed “steam dummy”-type 0-4-0 tram loco – no. 8 “Ooievaar” (Backer & Rueb 227/1904, formerly of the Haagsche Tramweg Maatschappij), which hauled the first departure from Hoorn of this peak-service day, the “historic train”. Train formed of three restored, in “teak” livery, former narrow-gauge bogie coaches (two ex-1067mm gauge Rotterdam Steam Tramway , one formerly of a metre-gauge line further south), plus a couple of vans for ancillary purposes.

The line’s other ex-public-service loco in action that day, was 0-6-0WT no. 7742 “Bello” – German-made (Schwartzkopff 5249/1914), but built for The Netherlands and in service there lifelong. This IMO splendid machine, with a resplendent brass dome, is the last survivor of her class which worked for many decades on the 1435mm gauge light railway between Alkmaar and the seaside resort of Bergen-aan-Zee. This line wound up as the last passenger remnant of a light-railway / tramway complex reaching to various points, including – as above – Wognum and thence Hoorn. The Alkmaar – Bergen line carried on – steam to the last – very well past World War II. It continued in year-round service, passenger and freight, until early 1953. After that, passenger-only, and only in high summer (mid-June to end of August) for a little longer: abandoned at end of August and of summer season, 1955.

Something of a “wistful wish” entertained, that this line’s summer-only survival as a commercial concern might have continued for some years further, until the preservation era gathered momentum (The Netherlands is relatively rich in railway enthusiasts). Had things so happened – the Bergen-aan-Zee line would feel rather more to be in the authentic-steam-tramway ballpark, than Hoorn – Medemblik and several, instead of just one, of its delectable 0-6-0WTs would likely have survived to run under preservation; and the line might be performing a bit of a genuine “carrying real people” role even today, for holidaymakers going to / from Bergen by public transport: many of them would likely be happy to make a cross-platform transfer at Alkmaar, to the next Bergen rail service – regardless of whether it consisted of ancient coaches hauled by an almost-centenarian 0-6-0WT, a modern diesel railcar, or “whatever” vehicles hauled by Dr. Strabismus’s patent perpetual-motion locomotive. All a pretty wildly-unlikely scenario; and the Hoorn – Medemblik line is very pleasant, and one feels like a misery-merchant for dreaming of even better “alternative time-lines”.

In reality, we travelled on the 1000 “historic train” departure, behind tram loco no. 8. One may travel on the front balcony of the first coach, as we did – “bucket seats” provided – together with the crew member with the red flag, for ushering the train over the numerous level crossings. I feel that we must have rather got in the poor chap’s way, with his frequent descending from the train with flag, and scrambling back on; but he was most pleasant, and showed no sign of annoyance. I do have the strong impression that the Dutch are, mostly, very nice people.

The next outbound train, running an hour later, was formed of 0-6-0T no. 5, “Enkhuizen”, and a rake of ex-German / Austrian four-wheel coaches, which are used for most of the line’s workings. No. 5, in Great Eastern-type blue livery, is an ex-industrial La Meuse product of 1929; acquired for preservation, from a Dutch nitrogen plant. My companion and myself went our separate ways, by agreement, part-way through “Hoorn – Medemblik day” he chose to stay and relish the preserved line to the full, I had at the time other fish to fry. He enjoyed, in the latter part of the day, train-hauling action by no. 7742 “Bello”; which I would have liked to experience, but, “so many wishes, so little time”.

Our other standard-gauge preserved scene visited, was the Goes – Borsele line, on the Middelburg peninsula in the south-west of the country. A branch running southward from the NS main line at Goes. This is the surviving part of a once rather more extensive private rail system (railway on own reservation, as opposed to roadside tramway) serving this corner of the country. This outfit was very much a latecomer, historically – opened in 1927, with passenger services throughout, worked from the start by internal-combustion railcars. Bad timing, with the way things were going public-transport-wise in The Netherlands; passenger services withdrawn in 1933, except for the basic stretch now operated by the preservation society – on which they lasted until 1947. Freight traffic – always worked, I gather, by locos hired from NS – carried on for some decades, over a progressively dwindling system. In 1951, the NS took over the undertaking outright.

Early in the 1970s, NS ceased to run freight on the line; and in pursuance of earlier negotiations, the preservation society took over, to run passenger workings for tourists and enthusiasts. They have been operating ever since, with details of outer terminus varying slightly over time. My understanding is that at present, working – basically in summer, intensively in July and August, less frequently in other months – is with steam, two return workings per day, the eleven or twelve km between Goes and Hoedekenskerke. On definitely few days a year (one of which we chose for visiting the line), additionally to this there is a service worked by Uerdingen four-wheel railbuses, running to the station one beyond Hoedekenskerke – a section otherwise not nowadays traversed. Track is still down, but seemingly out of use, from this rarely-used station, to the next one out – beyond which, all is long since lifted. The ways of preserved railways are sometimes strange, causing one to feel that emulating the Light Brigade, is the best course to take.

We duly enjoyed happenings on the Goes – Borsele on this particular day, mostly travelling up and down on the steam workings as far as Hoedekenskerke (eleven euros bought one a day’s unlimited travel, irrespective of method of propulsion), but taking one railbus run to the point beyond, and back again. The Goes – Borsele’s steam fleet is essentially composed of Dutch ex-industrial locos. On any ordinary operating day, one steam loco covers all workings: doing the honours on our visit, was the quite attractive 0-6-0T no. 3 “Bison”, in red livery. This machine was built by La Meuse in 1928. Similar in looks, though not identical, to the Hoorn – Medemblik’s no. 5, from the same builder. From a different industrial owner, however; no. 3 is an ex-colliery loco. A little surprisingly, The Netherlands has coal, in its far south-eastern Limburg / Maastricht “panhandle” area.

Some Dutch place-names can be lengthy, and difficult for Brits to get their heads / tongues around. We found Hoedekenskerke, rather a poser. Finally hit on an aide-memoire: we imagined a church whose parson, named Kenneth, was keenly concerned about ministering to young delinquent males. Hence, “Hoodie-Ken’s Church” – worked like a charm.

The last remnant (“sort-of”), of The Netherlands’s once enormous narrow-gauge kilometrage, survives at the preservation venue of the former 1067mm gauge Rotterdam Steam Tramway (Rotterdamsche Tramweg Maatschappij – RTM). Written of in my “The Lowlands low” piece (“which please see”), re which I must plead, in the light of subsequent discoveries, insufficient doing of homework. Correction given, herewith: for some years, the RTM preservation outfit operated on a very short section of actual ex-RTM trackage some way inland from the coast. In more recent times, it has totally removed its venue from there; to a new one, on the coast of one of the islands south of Rotterdam, quite close to a one-time RTM terminus, but a site on which neither the historic RTM, or any other railway / tramway, ever originally ran. The “new preserved RTM” covers about 8km, and is in my opinion well worth visiting but it’s basically a brand-new, from-scratch line. As per 2011, its operating days would seem sadly few and meagre; but where volunteers are needed to make things happen, it obviously depends on the availability of volunteers.

Reaching this RTM site by public transport, on which we were depending in our week’s bash, was not altogether easy – involving Rotterdam Metro to point A, whence one bus to point B, thence another to a rather desolate seashore location on the narrow-gauge line’s route. The services involved are, however, relatively frequent. It so worked out that my companion went to the venue on one day (got steam haulage), and I did so on another day (diesel traction – expected – was my lot).

In the great days of Dutch light railways / steam tramways – as intimated earlier, “much of such” was standard 1435mm gauge, much was not. The 1067mm gauge (3ft 6in), as on the RTM, was widespread. Much used in The Netherlands, also in Norway and Sweden – a British enthusiast writer (I forget who) remarked on this, to the effect of Northern Europeans getting the impression that 3ft 6in was a specifically British gauge, which of course it was not. As written of in my piece “The Lowlands Low”, the RTM’s extensive system remained – uniquely for the Dutch narrow gauge – in use and intact until the mid-1950s, and certain parts of it continued active for another decade-plus after that.

The Netherlands also used the 750mm gauge – but almost exclusively in a small, compact area of the country, in its “middle-east” bordering on Germany. This scene got, rather exceptionally, noticed in the 1950s British railway press, thanks to a small portion of that once complex 750mm gauge system, the Geldersche Tramwegen, centred on Doetinchem and surviving (freight-only) into the mid-1950s; and its having decided to celebrate its 75th anniversary in 1956, by for a short while restoring passenger services over part of its surviving route – and electing to briefly do the same in August 1957, to mark its abandonment. This undertaking was all-steam to the last, which likely attracted greater attention than would otherwise have been.

Also on the scene in The Netherlands for light railways / tramways, was the metre gauge. Tended to obtain mostly in the southern half of the country, with a bit of influence from neighbouring Belgium ‘s prolific light railway network being on that gauge. A particular metre-gauge matter; there’s a small stretch of The Netherlands, geographically separated from the rest of the country by the Westerschelde estuary which gives access to Antwerp as a Belgian port – the isolated Dutch area, closely bordering on Belgium, known as Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. Its chief town, Terneuzen , is linked by standard-gauge rail with the rest of the world (long since, solely for freight), only via the Belgian state rail system, by way of Gent. Poor Zeeuws-Vlaanderen is scorned by the general-interest guide-books, as basically devoid of anything that any tourist might want to see (the old “first prize / second prize – a week / two weeks” joke?). Viewed from the opposite shore of the estuary at Hoedekenskerke, Zeeuws-Vlaanderen looked rather delectable...

And “in the palmy days”, Zeeuws-Vlaanderen was absolutely crammed full of metre-gauge steam tramways, under various administrations, with multiple connections to the Belgian Vicinaux / Buurtspoorwegen ditto. Furthermore, these metre-gauge lines in this small area mostly survived WWII but with the general then “way of the world”, they disappeared over the next few years, the last section closing in 1951.

A splendid reminiscence in P. Allen and P.B. Whitehouse’s “Narrow Gauge Railways of Europe”, about this scene shortly pre-WWII. Concerns day excursions from Ostend in Belgium, to Middelburg – a tourist venue in The Netherlands, north of the Westerschelde estuary, which body of water crossed, then as now, by ferry from Breskens (Zeeuws-Vlaanderen) to Vlissingen. Such excursions could be done by road coach from Ostend – supposed advantage, travelling in the same vehicle all the way. Alternatively, the Belgian “Vicinaux” tram administration, offered its own Middelburg day-excursion deal, linked with the connecting Dutch steam tram route (part-dieselised) to Breskens, meshed-in-with – quick change of trams – at the border. You reached Breskens by the tram – long lines of road coaches were waiting their turn to board the car ferry (likely lengthy wait for same, in those days); but tram travellers counted as foot passengers, and went straight aboard the ferry, off to Vlissingen, and Dutch train to Middelburg. You’d be likely to gain many hours on the mugs who had decided to do the switched-on modern thing and go by coach... supposably, the same fun was to be had by those few Brits who were able then to get abroad and experience this business, in the several years post-WWII, before the closure of the Dutch tramway ... the ongoing-and-ever complaint, we were born too late.

The Dutch steam tramway and light railway scene displayed some similarities with the same scene in Britain; but also some very marked differences. Perceivedly similar, was the fact that the light railways were in the main inaugurated and run by private companies – many different ones of same – unlike, for example, the very extensive metre-gauge system of neighbouring Belgium, always unified and nationalised under the Vicinaux / Buurtspoorwegen administration. As time went on, some Dutch light railways came into state railways ownership / partnership in various ways; but the majority were independent throughout their lifespan. The variety of gauges – standard 1435mm, and assorted narrow – is also reminiscent of the British situation.

On the “different” side, was the sheer quantity of public light railways in The Netherlands (complementing an already dense state standard-gauge network) – at their peak, roughly two-and-a-quarter-thousand kilometres route length, in a country much smaller than Britain. Light railways were found in nearly all parts of the country (though never on the chain of islands off the north coast – in contrast with the German East Frisian Islands which continue that chain eastward). Britain’s light railways did not fare outstandingly well once road motor transport grew beyond its infancy but their Dutch counterparts had it rougher still. Over a mere two decades, approximately from 1930 to 1950, the very great majority of them totally vanished. There was a great mortality of light railways / steam tramways during the 1930s – contributed to by unrestricted bus competition on less-than-fair terms. Closures more or less ceased during World War II, with its privations and shortages, especially of motor fuel – though various of the war’s events were damaging to some lines. It is interesting how many published photographs of Dutch light railways in action, were taken during the Second World War. Presumably the occupiers on the spot judged that the odd eccentric individual taking pictures of funny little trains, was unlikely to bring the Third Reich crashing down...

As soon as the war was over, light-railway closures were back in full swing; by the early 1950s, very little indeed was left. So little that Bryan Morgan, in “The End Of The Line”, basically wrote off The Netherlands, save only for the remarkably-surviving Rotterdam Steam Tramway. The book does not mention the Alkmaar – Bergen-aan-Zee line by name – just an “aside” about seasonal operations with a precarious future; I’d suspect that Morgan had heard of the Bergen line, but things so worked out that he never went there.

A few light railways continued – usually, just in part – to carry freight; some, until surprisingly late on. The 750mm Geldersche Tramwegen did so with steam until 1957, as recounted above. Other, 1435mm-gauge, concerns did likewise, with diesel traction. One such was the Westlandsche Stoomtramweg Maatschappij, on parts of its system serving The Hague, Delft, Naaldwijk, and (at one time) Hook of The Netherlands. This action continued until 1967. With my 1963 school trip being based at The Hague / Scheveningen, I might have had a chance of seeing something happening on the Westlandsche; unfortunately, at that time I was unaware of the line’s existence. The Hoorn – Medemblik line continued to carry freight, till late on; and a connecting route of the Bergen-aan-Zee line, Alkmaar to Warmenhuizen, was in use for freight till the end of 1968. The once very extensive Nederlandsche Tramweg Mattaschappij system in the far north continued till late in the day, to see freight use over some sections , with haulage by NS diesel locos. Its last section, the long one from Groningen to Drachten, remained thus served until 1985. (By the 1950s, Goes – Borsele had become essentially just an ordinary NS freight branch.)

In the great days before damned internal-combustion plus rubber, muscled in and spoilt everything ; I feel that The Netherlands’s steam tramways / light railways must have been – for folk who did not demand a non-flat scenic environment – heaven for those who enjoyed such. Morgan rhapsodises briefly over their gone-for-ever glories and weirdnesses – “trams hauled by vintage buses. Edwardian royal saloons, little trains which met up, four of them, face-to-face at a flat crossing...”

Dutch enthusiasts have amply chronicled and recorded their country’s lost treasures; but for some reason, the same has not noticeably transmitted itself further than the Netherlands. The language barrier, perhaps to some extent to blame – hard, though, to imagine that a too-enormous obstacle. W.J.K. Davies wrote learnedly and voluminously and fascinatingly about the light railways of France and Belgium; but seemingly, never touched The Netherlands. He died late in 2010, aged 75. Imaginably, The Netherlands’s light railways might have been his next envisaged project, cheated from him by the Grim Reaper?

The books on The Netherlands’s vanished tramways and light railways are not particularly hard to obtain outside their own country – and regardless of one’s lack of Dutch-language skills, the pictures in them are a delight. They show to a large extent, “box-type” steam tram locos – to a lesser extent, tram locos of the type “skirts below, normal locomotive body above” – as on the RTM, or our own Glyn Valley Tramway; sometimes, small conventional tank engines. Pre-World War II, some Dutch tramways / light railways turned to internal-combustion railcars in an attempt to save their passenger services; but not many of the published pictures seem to feature those. There is the occasional picture of something extremely strange, on the light railways. For instance, the Limburgsche Tramweg Maatschappij, in the abovementioned hilly south-eastern “panhandle” of The Netherlands – needed for one of its 1435mm lines, serving coal mines, something powerful; and ended up getting a German-built in 1931, double-0-6-0 Garratt – as far as is known, the only inside-cylinder Garratt ever built. After closure of the line on which it ran, the loco fell into German hands during World War II, and its fate is unknown. There are pictures of the loco – “passing strange”. At all events, “the published” depict a scene which I for one would have loved beyond telling, to experience.

The more masochistically-inclined might speculate how long it would have taken a dedicated enthusiast, to travel over all of The Netherlands’s steam tramways / light railways, at their peak. With basically intensive-basher-unfriendly schedules – one suspects, a long time; and a good deal of unsolicited advice to take up another hobby?

An oddity, of only peripherally railway interest, was indulged in during the week spent in The Netherlands. In the far south of the country, a few kilometres from the Belgian border, is a little town – or rather, two little towns melded into one. The place is a geopolitical curiosity which attracts folk who relish strange and anomalous stuff involving borders. Many centuries of wheeling-and-dealing between land-holding noblemen, and later between sovereign nations, have resulted in the remarkable circumstance of a number of enclaves of various (basically small) sizes, of Belgian territory some kilometres within The Netherlands, plus several Dutch exclaves within the Belgian enclaves. The consequence is, the mutually-entwined small towns of Dutch Baarle-Nassau and Belgian Baarle-Hertog, each with its own respective and duplicated municipal authorities and services.

The locals do the maximum possible of tourist-wooing, revolving around this strange situation. Lines of white crosses plus “B” or “N”, are painted across the pavements to show where you are about to step from one country into the other; and buildings’ street-number-plates are marked with tiny insignia in the appropriate national colours. Considerable effort is expended in having specifically Belgian “stuff” plying its trade in the Belgian parts, and Dutch in the Dutch ditto. Among other matters, respectively different “eateries”; and deals with alcohol and tobacco. In the Belgian part, chocolate shops of course; and, of all things, shops selling fireworks – concerning which Belgian legislation is apparently more permissive and less nanny-ish, than Dutch ditto.

I visited Baarle on one day, intrigued by partaking of the experience. My companion, not interested in “frontier nonsense”, spent the day doing his preferred thing. I made sure to have lunch at a “chippy” in the Belgian part of town – Belgians being famously, the world’s top chip-fiends. I duly got a – to be truthful, not all that appetising – helping of chips with mayonnaise, plus a rissole. Baarle is an interestingly crazy scene, if one enjoys that kind of thing; for me, one visit in a lifetime will probably suffice.

It would have been nice if, on top of its other oddnesses, Baarle had ever been light railway / tramway-served, Dutch and / or Belgian; in fact, though, it never was. Long ago, a large Dutch interconnected 1067mm gauge system, with many different constituent companies, ran quite close by on either side – but not to “the enclave-and-exclave place”. Baarle was, however, on a standard-gauge secondary main line, of considerable antiquity – which fell early into Dutch and Belgian respective state-railways ownership – running from Herentals on a Belgian east – west route, through Turnhout and Baarle, to Tilburg on a Dutch east – west main line. All this north of Turnhout, is now gone – Baarle station (just fractionally in Dutch territory) has been turned into a restaurant-cum-bowling-alley; the rail trackbed north and south, is now a cycleway. A for me rather sad “might-have-been”: for a while after the railway through Baarle had ceased to be found worthwhile in a commercial role, it survived in a “tourist” one. For a period up to about 1980, tourist trains were run in season, using preserved steam locos, between Tilburg and Baarle. From what I can gather, the trains continued south of Baarle and over the border, to Turnhout; but just for functional purposes – for the loco to run round, and (?) be turned. Railway enthusiasts imploring to be allowed to travel Baarle – Turnhout, were refused; presumably safety considerations / Dutch-vis-à-vis-Belgian state-railways niceties, made it out of the question. I have to feel, a potentially splendid steam tourist operation (whether only “north of the border”, or otherwise) – catering to gricers / frontier-fanciers / just ordinary trippers; but which would seem not to have been enough of a crowd-puller, to be sustainable.

If one is in The Netherlands, Baarle is now reached by public transport, by a basically hourly bus service on a two-sides-of-a-triangle route Breda – Baarle – Tilburg and return. (From Belgium, it’s attained by bus from Turnhout.) A pleasant run, over both “legs” – at least, when one is finally out of the seemingly endless suburbs of Breda: pretty and spacious countryside, in a flat way – much woodland, interspersed by mixed-farming country.

Some impulse felt, to try to spend my declining years being, for The Netherlands, a W.J.K. Davies substitute – achieving on his behalf, the ambition which time’s running out, perhaps foiled for him. In my opinion, a country and a one-time light-rail scene therein, deserving of the effort.

Robert suggest these sites which will give a flavour of the scenes he describes:

Basically, pics of doings at the venue as of nowadays, of the “preserved Rotterdam Steam Tramway”; plus some text, historical, and preserved Rotterdam Steam Tram scene.

Gallery of pictures of the Hoorn – Medemblik line in the preservation era.

Rob Dickinson