Public Transport in the Netherlands or how something good turns evil…

I live in the Netherlands and in the city of The Hague. That’s where the government seats. A beautiful centuries old city with wonderful sights and a generally peaceful atmosphere. The City of International Justice too as the United Nations has vested their International Court in it. The Hague is a proud if not sometimes pedant city. A typical western European government city. Not the capitol of my country as that is reserved for Amsterdam but still quite important.

And like any of these type of cities, The Hague has public transport. Buses and trams. Actually it has a fairly modern public transport system albeit somewhat expensive for the travelers. But it does operate quite well and most people seem satisfied with the performance of the HTM, the Haguean Tram Company or whatever name it would have in English. An old company too. Since a couple of years The Hague is like other cities in the Netherlands, actually like most of the country, blessed with the ‘OV chipcard‘ system, the Public Transport Chip Card that facilitates travelers in fast and easy payment of their journeys. Like a pre paid phone card it works on a balance that can be placed on the card’s account, which basically is some sort of dedicated credit card. And the system works. Most of the time that is.

Now, introducing the ‘OV’ system has taken years and years and many political discussions on government and city levels. But it’s there now and there is no escape from it. Or is there?

Some years ago the HTM, the local public transport company, acquired new railcars for the newly made metropolitan lines 3 and 4 that run in The Hague and between The Hague and Zoetermeer, a phorensic town just outside of The Hague. Nice modern railcars with much more comfort thant the old ones that are running in the streets for some decades. Although the first few years of this new model railcar were not exactly easy it now is a quite reliabel tramway. But not for the chipcard system that has been implemented in the railcars in the past few years.

First of all it took a couple of years fo dual ticketing systems on the line 3 and 4 because on government level the chipcard system was not agreed resulting in tramcars running with chipcard readers installed that were switched off. Only after some three years and numorous political discussions and technical drawbacks like hackable chipcards the system finally was switched on sometime ago.

The Dutch Way.

Meaning that the old system was abandoned after some months and the travelers are since then expected to use the chipcards exclusively. No card sales in the railcars except from a ticketing machine. A ticketing machine that – although German built – continuously malfunctioned. Until this day. Actually in the first year the chances of a working ticketing machine against a non working were about 50:50 according to emperical research by the author. It saved me quite a lot of money because when the machines don’t work and tickets can not be bought otherwise, whow would be so stupid to have a chipcard on him er her. Well, not me, that’s for sure.

So I had a lot of free travels thanks to the crappy system.

Until I went to Nepal for sometime and after the first journey noticed a major change. The coint slots of the ticketing machines were barred by an aluminium strip rendering them inoperable. Only paying by Chipknip (a digital wallet in the form of yet another chipcard) was allowed since then. The good news ofcourse being that most of the machines didn’t work anyway so I continued to happily travel for free. And when checked and the conductors noticed a broken ticketing machine everybody simply had a lucky day.

Then I went to Nepal again.

When I returned for the second time another thing was changed. Now there was another aluminium plate glued to the front of the machine. With words on it. In English translation it read the following:

‘When this machine is not working or you don’t have a Chipknip with you, a valid transport ticket remains obligatory.’

Wow. I almost immediately realized that this message means that when you don’t have public transport chipcard with enough balance with but do have cash and a chipknip for digital payment while one of these damned machines broke down you are liable for a heavy fine. The logic in that completely went beyond me.

A public transport company that doesn’t facilitate buying transport tickets because they blocked cash payment and there’s no conductor on a tram and that has inoperative icketing machines actually thinks that they can fine travelers who in such a case continue traveling?
First of all one can only discover this situation after entering the railcar which by the time you find out that it’s imposible to obtain a ticket has already start moving will automatically make your journey illegal and there is no way you can get out of a moving railcar.
Second it also means that if you succeed in escaping your illegal journey at the next stop it means that you have to wait until the next railcar hoping that it has a working ticketing machine on board, which it in about 50% of the cases won’t and therefore bring you in thesame situation as before.
Thirdly it means that some travelers can by no means pay for a ticket even if they wanted too.

Obviously this situation is hilarious to say the least but the real problem started when the transport company actually ordered their staff to fine the purpetrators who they might catch in such a situation. The transport and chipcard system obviously had some trouble with mental derailment. It took a while and some quarrels in the trams between travelers with good intentions but without valid tickets and conductors with weird instructions, before local politics stepped in. So just recently the mayor of the city together with the responsbible city council members asked the transport company what the fuck they were doing? Not in those words I expect, but the answer did come in the end.

In the letter of which a relevant part is shown here the public transport company first of all downplays the problem by stating that the machine are most of the times working albeit that they have no figures on the number of malfunctions. Then they come with this great alternative. When a situation as described occurs the traveler is supposed to attack – in a friendly manner – any conductor entering the tramcar and force these to accept cash payment for their journay against th eminimum rate of €2.50.

Brilliant. So in essence nothing changed because that was how it always has been before exceot that these conductors no longer need to fine anyone willing to pay a normal minimum fare.

And so, the transport system and it’s latest innovation once again showed a typical Dutch approach: don’t fic the problem but just organize yourself around it…

Alice © 2012