Cast back to last year, and Brits wanting to travel by train to the Netherlands just opted for the cheapest and most obvious route. Eurostar (and plenty of agents besides) sold an Any Dutch Station (ADS) ticket. It cost little more than a regular Eurostar ticket to Brussels, and allowed customers to connect in the Belgian capital with onward trains to the Netherlands.
The great majority of travellers purchasing the ADS tickets were surely bound for Amsterdam. But it could be used to any Dutch station and was pretty well free of routing restrictions. So we used it, for example, to travel on from Brussels to Maastricht via Liège and on another occasion to Nieuweschans on the German border (in the extreme north-east corner of the Netherlands). The only small-print restriction in the ADS rules was that these bargain tickets could not be used on the premium high-speed Thalys trains that ran from Brussels to Amsterdam. But that hardly mattered as there were plenty of regular trains from Brussels across the nearby border into the Netherlands.
ADS offered flexibility and allowed passengers arriving in Brussels on Eurostar to hop on any Dutch-bound train they fancied (bar for those few premium Thalys services).
ADS was too good a deal to last and the death knell for this marvellous ticket was the introduction in December 2012 of a new high-speed train called FYRA that ran from Brussels north into the Netherlands. FYRA thought itself much too posh to accept bargain tickets like ADS. It styled itself on its competitor Thalys ("a paler shade of Thalys" we supposed) and as a premium service it required advance booking and premium fares. All the regular trains from Brussels to the Netherlands were cancelled from 9 December 2012, and their demise signalled the end of the ADS ticket.
There is a twist in this tale. FYRA nudged the regular trains out of the timetables but FYRA has itself turned out to be famously unreliable. In the weeks after their introduction, many FYRA trains were cancelled and most of those that did run arrived late at their destination. Last week, the service was suspended altogether, leaving Thalys as the only company offering direct trains from Brussels to anywhere in the Netherlands.
Whether or not FYRA returns matters little to us. We think passengers would benefit more from the reinstatement of a regular train service from Brussels to Amsterdam — one that runs hourly, offers reasonable walk-on fares, does not require advance booking and can be used by holders of Eurail and InterRail passes without having to pay supplements. Put simply, can we not just revert back to the situation that prevailed prior to 9 December 2012?
Holders of InterRail and Eurail passes should note that Thalys levies hefty supplements for pass-holders. Even with a top-of-the-range "global" pass, you will still pay a €39 supplement to ride with Thalys from Brussels to Amsterdam. And that's just second class (styled Comfort 2 in Thalys-speak). If you hold a first-class pass, the supplement rises to €55.
So ADS has gone, and travellers heading from London to Amsterdam now have to think more carefully about their options. Of course you can still buy a through ticket from London to Amsterdam (connecting in Brussels onto a Thalys service for the last part of the journey). But it’ll be pricier than ADS ever was.
There is also an excellent rail-sea service using the Harwich to Hoek van Holland ferry. Stena Line offer a Dutch Flyer ticket which is similar in many respects to the old ADS train ticket. It allows a one-way journey from Harwich to Hoek van Holland and then onward travel by train to any railway station in the Netherlands. Fares start at just £39 one way (and for just £6 extra you can extend the scope of the Dutch Flyer to include travel by train to Harwich from over 100 rail stations in eastern England (the list includes London Liverpool Street, Cambridge and Norwich). The Dutch Flyer is magnificent value, particularly for travellers who want to make a longish hop onward through the Netherlands after getting off the boat at Hoek van Holland.
If there is a silver lining in all this, it is that the new arrangements (and particularly the fiasco with FYRA) are making travellers think more carefully about routes from London to Amsterdam. Creative souls are discovering new itineraries — some of which mirror routes to Amsterdam that were favoured by travellers of yesteryear. No-one dictates that you must dash to Amsterdam. Flanders, Zeeland and Zuid-Holland offer some of Europe’s finest small towns and rural landscapes.
In a separate article published in European Rail News, we reveal a marvellous itinerary for travellers heading from Lille (in French Flanders) to Amsterdam. It ain't fast, but it's certainly fun, and offers a great engagement with places by-passed by the high-speed trains.