I had saved Centraal Station for a special visit, rather than simply collecting it with the rest of the Noord-Zuid line, because it's special. It's Amsterdam Centraal. It's one of the great European rail termini, like Paris's Gare de Nord, or Helsinki Central, or whichever is your favourite London station (this is a surprisingly fraught topic of discussion which I will avoid getting involved in). The last time I'd been here, in 2006, the station square had been a churned up mess due to construction of the new metro line. You couldn't stop and linger and appreciate it.
Tuesday, 8 August 2023
I have a superpower. This probably won't come as a surprise to most of you. You'll have observed my dark features and thick black glasses and schlubby dress style and thought, "obviously nobody would look like that deliberately, unless they were trying to craft a Clark Kent-esque secret identity." And while it's true that removing my glasses does have the power to grant invisibility - in the sense that I can't see a bloody thing - that's not what I actually mean. My superpower is being in the right place at exactly the wrong time.
I got off the M50 and headed up, through the large shared metro mezzanine space, to an escalator bank that would carry me up to the Station Island. I got out, turned round to view the famous frontage, and swore.
Apparently, no sooner had the city of Amsterdam finished building its new metro out front, than ProRail (the Dutch Network Rail) moved in to start rebuilding it. They had a scheme to improve it at track and concourse level, replacing bridges, adding capacity, expanding passenger access points. All marvellous ideas I absolutely support. I'm not sure why they couldn't have waited until after I had visited to do it, however. That's very selfish of them.
Centraal opened in 1889 and marked the point where Amsterdam moved away from being a naval town and embraced the modern world. Initial suggestions for a railway station had pointed to the south, somewhere below the canal rings, but the government instead chose to build the station as the city's bullseye. They constructed a series of islands for the new terminus, which, along with the lines heading into it, would mean the Ij was permanently divided from the city as a whole.
It was outrageous, controversial, and brilliant. You'd never get away with it today. It cut off the water from Amsterdam but it replaced it with the future: the railway. Trains were now at the literal heart of the city. The roads, the canals, the flow of life all pointed towards the station. Similarly, when you arrived, you were right there, in the midst of it all - none of this London nonsense of abandoning you on the Euston Road. And to accommodate it, the architect Pierre Cuypers built an elaborate showcase for everything that was great about the Netherlands - a proud showcase of its power and wonder.
I went inside and into the middle of the refurbishment works. The entrance hall had been stripped of all features and the columns were covered in protective boards. They were very nice boards, decorated with delicate pottery designs, but they weren't exactly what I was here for. It felt oppressive and dark. Not the cathedral of the railways I'd wanted.
I was going to catch a train here - of course I was - so I went through the barriers and into the undercroft to find my platform. I've got a complaint here, by the way. I was going to a small station in Amsterdam, not a major destination, but I couldn't find any way of establishing which train it was. The screens at the base of each platform only announced principal stops, not the little one in between; it was as if the destination board at Lime Street announced the Manchester train would stop at, say, Huyton and Newton-le-Willows, but forgot to mention Edge Hill and Wavertree Technology Park and all the ones in between. I had to check my GVB app (which is, by the way, superb) to find which train I should be getting and what platform it was on. Only when I was actually up the stairs did I get confirmation that, yes, this train would be stopping where I needed to go.
(I will also add it's entirely possible that I misread every single departure board because I am quite thick).
Of course, none of that mattered when I reached the platform, because I was suddenly in Centraal proper. Now I had the enormous curve of the train hall roof arching over me. I had people dashing about. I had trains. Now it felt like a truly epic building.
Centraal has two of these barrel shaped roofs, arching over the railway tracks (a third was added alongside the Noord-Zuid line to accommodate a new bus station but that's boring old buses so I'm not really bothered). I was surprised I was the only one gawping in wonder. I wanted to stop the people clattering about and say, look at it! Look how beautiful it is!
Great stations inspire you. It's about more than being a place to get a train. It's a world of its own, a spot to wow and show off. A great station should welcome you off the train and subtly say, yep, you've arrived. Bet you can't wait to explore, can you? I loved it. I loved being a part of it and watching the whirl of passengers and engines, the shifts, the flows. This is why I love visiting stations. This is why I have this slightly weird hobby.
Amsterdam Centraal was noisy and busy and exciting. Trains flowed in from across the continent - on the opposite platform was the red and white log of the Deutsche Bahn; I could've caught a train to Paris or London from here if I wanted (and, in the case of London, if I had a rather amount of cash in my wallet). That won't last forever. The Zuidasdok Project will create enough space at Zuid for all the international trains to be relocated there; they'll be able to speed through on high speed lines rather than being forced to use slower lines for the last few kilometres to get to Centraal. It's a shame because you'll lose the drama of arrival - even after the rebuild Zuid won't compete with Amsterdam Centraal. Tourists won't have as compelling a reason to come here, but I hope they will. I hope they'll come just to see it. It's a treasure, a jewel, and I'll have to return in about fifteen years time and see it when it's finally done. If I'm lucky.