How to get from Utrecht to London and vice versa
when things go wrong ....
Travelling these days comes with its inherent risks. Even if you leave home early, abide by all the rules, with the best intention of arriving at the port of exit on time, you are not guaranteed to get to your final destination because of unexpected events that may cause delays in your journey. Below is my story of the best laid plans of mice and men gone awry.
Tuesday 2 September 2008, approx. 16:25 from home
I pulled my blue backpack and sports bag on a foldable trolley through colourful Kanaalstraat in that ethnically diverse neighbourhood of Lombok to central Utrecht train station. Even in the rain, it was not difficult or long, a mere 20 minutes door to door ---- less without luggage or red traffic lights.
In the tunnel beneath the train station, I bought my single discounted ticket at exactly 16:47:28 --- as printed. On the platform, I quickly guessed that there was no train to Eindhoven. I asked a conductor what was going on, as others started to gather around him. He shrugged, "There are no trains between Utrecht and Den Bosch. A bomb alert." Suddenly a flurry of questions spewed out from everyone else.
"How long has there been no train?"
"How long will this last?"
"I have a plane to catch in Eindhoven. What should I do?" I asked.
In other words, should I wait until this scare passes? Should I catch a bus -- if there is a replacement bus? Should I catch another train?
The conductor pointed to the stairs, "You should go upstairs to find out more."
In the main terminal of Utrecht Centraal train station, during the afternoon rush hour, crowds have already formed around the information desk. I finally caught the attention of one staff member who was mesmerised by three blonde girls.
"I have to catch a 7:30 plane at Eindhoven Airport," I said. "How do I get there?"
"Take the next train to Nijmegen and change at Arnhem for the train to Den Bosch. Change again to the train to Eindhoven."
"Will I get there on time?"
"Sure," he smiled.
The rest of my story is based on the faith I put on his reply.
17:00 Utrecht Central Station
I rushed downstairs to platform 14 for the next high speed train to Nijmegen. The train map showed that I would be taking a detour east towards the German border and then southwest to Den Bosch. From there I'd have to take a southbound train to Eindhoven and then a bus to the airport.
The fast train from Utrecht to Eindhoven normally takes about 50 minutes. How long would this detour take? It was 17:07. I've already checked-in online and printed my boarding pass five days ago. The gate closes at 19:05. Will I make it in two hours?
At Arnhem, the station before Nijmegen, an announcement was made about a train waiting at platform 3. Half the passengers got off to make the change. It was a slow push to squeeze upstairs and across to the other side. I was grateful I made it --- to the first empty seat in the aisle.
It was nearly 6 pm in Arnhem. And I needed every minute of the next hour to get to Eindhoven Airport before the gate closed. But I had no idea just how long it would take to get to Den Bosch, a trip that would normally take no more than 30 minutes from Utrecht directly.
This was an emergency situation. I had a plane to catch. I was caught in slow-moving rush hour traffic, lost in the language and the crowd. The guy next to me woke up to the sound of my desperate phone call for help.
"Can I help you?" the Dutch guy asked. "Do you need the Internet?"
At this stage, I dared not refuse any help. The Internet would help me discern the back-up options available. Call Ryan Air to see if they'd wait for me or refund my ticket. Check Eurolines to check for availability on the overnight coach to London. Google Stenalines. As my mind raced, the young man was already taking out his laptop and mobile phone.
"I've got a powerbook," I said. "But where is the Internet? Is it wireless?"
He replied that he had mobile Internet, but it would be tricky to get it to work on a moving train. "We're almost at Den Bosch. Let's find a place to stay put."
At Den Bosch Central, I had to browse Ryan Air's website to find a phone number to call. My premium rate call returned a big fat no, "Sorry, we can't credit your ticket to anything else. The next flight leaves tomorrow morning and it's 99 euros for a single ticket."
Neither Eurolines nor Stena Line allowed me to book a same day ticket. The guy checked one of his electronic gadgets and offered to drive me to the Hook of Holland to catch the Stena Line ferry.
"Oh no," I gasped. "You can't do that! It's too far!" I was thinking London, not Hook of Holland.
"Why not? I've had a lousy day. Let me do this for you. I can get you to the Hook of Holland if we leave now."
I vacillated. What if the ferry doesn't let me on board because I hadn't booked in advance? What if I got sea sick? What if it's too expensive and there's a cheaper option? Maybe I should take the train, if there's still time, via Brussels. Maybe I should visit Eurolines overnight coach which normally stops in Utrecht, den Bosch, Breda, and Rotterdam.
Time was running out. The gentleman took me to a Dutch rail personnel to ask all these questions. She didn't know the answer, except that I'd better catch the next train to Utrecht immediately.
On the train to Utrecht, I called a Dutch friend in Rotterdam.
"Why, Anne," the tall academic answered the phone. "What honour do I have to receive your call?"
"I'm in a bit of a jam," I explained. "Could you get on the Internet and help me? I've missed my flight from Eindhoven. I am on the train back to Utrecht. I have three appointments in London tomorrow. I have to figure out if I should take the train, ferry, or coach to London. Can I get on the Stena line ferry crossing? How much is it? What time do I have to get there? Have you done this before? Do I need to book in advance? How about Eurolines, the overnight coach? Where can I board?"
Were there really THAT many options? I had to get to London otherwise I'd have to reschedule my appointments the next day. What was left? Train through Brussels, overnight ferry, overnight coach, and last flights out of Amsterdam. What was affordable? Ferry and coach. What was available?
19:55 Utrecht Central Station -- again!
I queued at the International Rail Desk to enquire about trains via Brussels to London and the Stena Line overnight ferry to Harwich. A helpful Dutch lady called the Stena Line emergency number and told me that I could only get on the 22:00 ferry if I got there by 21:15. The train via Rotterdam would get me there at 21:40, unless I travelled by taxi.
"Too expensive," I exclaimed. Taxi's were off-limits for me. Not in my alternative set.
I lamented whether I should travel to Amsterdam Amstel station where Eurolines overnight coach journeys all began. It was a bet on last minute availability.
Just when I was about to head for the train, the Dutch Rail lady stopped me. "We'll pay for the taxi," she said. "But I have to check if it can get you there in one hour." It was 20:15.
"Quick!" she jumped over the desk counter. "I have to take you to the cab. Follow me! Quickly!"
Before I knew what happened, I was sitting in the backseat of a fast taxi to Rotterdam. Why didn't the Dutch Railway Company pay for a taxi to get me from Utrecht to Den Bosch at 17:00? I would have arrived in London by now.
The cab driver broke my jubilation. "What's the address?"
"The Hook of Holland," I said.
"But where in the Hook of Holland?" he asked. "I'm just a local cab driver. I know Utrecht. I can get you from Utrecht to Rotterdam. Rotterdam to Hook of Holland. But where is the exact street address?"
"It's a big boat," I cried. "It's sitting in the harbour. It will take me to England."
"But there are many harbours," he said. "Which one is it?"
"There must be a sign. A big sign that says Stena Line. It's famous," I guessed. How could I get this far and still miss the boat? I've had enough bad luck already.
"I need an address to put into my tom tom," he explained.
Several phone calls later, the driver typed in "Stationsweg, Hoek van Holland."
Actually, he didn't have to follow his tom tom. The Dutch are famous for being very clear and specific about road signs. The large green signs for Rotterdam soon changed to signs for the Hook of Holland. Every step of the way, every few kilometres, the overhead road signs guided us without fault. When I saw signs that said "England" and "Harwich" I knew we were near the Stena Line ferry.
At precisely 21:15 the taxi delivered me to the door steps of the Stena Line terminal. The hall was nearly empty, and I got my ticket straight away. It was mandatory to book a cabin along with the overnight ferry ticket.
"How many others will I be sharing the cabin with?" I asked naively.
"You're not allowed to share, ma'am," said the Dutch lady in perfect English. "You have your own cabin. This is your key."
I walked to the 9th level of the big boat that would carry me overnight to the east coast of England. Through a maze of narrow hallways and small doors, I found my cabin: 928.
To my delight, there was an ensuite shower and toilet and two bunk beds in the windowless cabin. Freedom at last! I was overjoyed, despite having had to pay 81 euros for this privilege and spending over 7 hours on a huge detour that forfeited my 20 euro pre-paid flight. Finally I get to travel in my own space, hear only my own sounds, and be free of the crowds of strangers on public transport. I would sleep until the general alarm of 05:30 GMT and go downstairs for the all-you-can-eat English breakfast for 10.50 euro's and arrive in Harwich at 06:30.
2 September 2008