The Netherlands Railway Museum in Utrecht is hands down one of the best museums we’ve visited. It’s a showcase of Dutch, and in a wider context, European, locomotive history. The history it chronicles begins in 1839 when the first steam locomotive, De Arend, made its maiden voyage from Amsterdam to Haarlem.
The main part of it ends, mostly, in 1958, when the last steam locomotive, Locomotive no. 3737 retired from railroad service.
There are however a couple of locomotives and carriages that are from a later time, and there’s a left wing which focuses on modern locomotive technology, but for the most part, the main building houses historic stuff.
The museum is located in the now defunct Maliebaan station about a fifteen minute walk from the centre of Utrecht. The station itself is an absolute gem, with beautiful architectural features from the turn of the century – a mix of neo-renaissance and art deco styles.
Stepping in takes you immediately back in time. Its designers have done a great job at giving all visitors a truly immersive experience from the moment they enter. The station has been lovingly restored to its full glory, and everything, from the ornamentation on the ticketing booths to the taps in the restrooms are exactly as they were.
The entrance hall is impressive, with its high ceiling, elegant, tall windows and art-deco chandeliers. To the right is an exhibit made of many suitcases, the sort that were used back before suitcases had wheels on them. Go a little closer and you’ll see they are no ordinary suitcases. Inside some of them are little dioramas with lovely projections of people and events unfolding in them.
A few steps ahead, you’ll enter the platform of the Maliebaan station. There are two locomotives here, and a few carriages, of different design. I was absolutely blown away by the wonderful style and craftsmanship of these vehicles.
You can enter one of the carriages, which used to be the royal carriage of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. The carriage has a pretty retro design reminiscent of the 50’s and 60’s.
The main building is pretty impressive. It has a really cool brick, concrete and steel interior that mixes historical detail with contemporary flair. Parts of it made me think of the Centre Georges Pompidou, sans the bullshit.
The trains inside are gobsmackingly beautiful. They all seemed so similar in some ways, yet when you looked closely, you’ll realise how different they are in terms of proportion and detail.
Ultimately though, they are all steam trains, so they all had more less the same bits, though each is beautiful in its own unique way.
While we were there, we were lucky enough to get to enter the first electric train that ran in the Netherlands. Its route began in Rotterdam and ended in Scheveningen, in the Hague, not so far from where we live.
The train, we were told, was used by Germany during World War Two and was only returned to the Netherlands not so long ago, when it was refurbished at great cost.That’s no surprise however, considering how plush it looks inside.
There are four main attractions you have to visit, once you’ve marvelled long enough at the locomotives on display.
The first is the “Great Discovery”, which is an immersive audio tour taking you from the invention of the steam engine by Thomas Newcomen in England to the maiden voyage of De Arend from Amsterdam to Haarlem.
The narrator is an Englishman who was sent to the Netherlands to drive the first steam locomotive.
The exhibit is very well done, at times, I could almost believe I really was back in the 1800’s, waiting to get onto De Arend in Amsterdam.
The lights and atmosphere on the platform had a very celebratory atmosphere. There was something eerily wonderful, being alone on the platform looking at the very first locomotive in the Netherlands, which must have been ridden to death when it was in operation.
The second attraction is the Orient Express. This is possibly my favourite exhibit. It’s very simple – a simulation of a railway platform with a ticketing booth from around the turn of the century with two trains on either side.
On one wall is a map of Europe, extending all the way to Romania and also south into the Middle East. Strips of lights show the major railway lines that pass through the continent, from London to Paris through to Budapest before branching south towards Aleppo and East to Bucharest.
The setup truly ignites a sense of wonder at how much smaller the world became when the major cities of the world became connected by rail.
The third is an amusement park like simulation where visitors play at operating a steam locomotive. Before you get onto the ride, there’s a short spiel about the locomotive history in the Netherlands and a little bit about how to operate steam locomotives.
For the ride, you’re seated in a chair which moves according to the 3D projections on the screen in front of it. It is pretty immersive.
The final attraction is called “Stalen Monsters”, a ride that takes you through a maze of locomotives and carriages, including the biggest locomotive the Netherlands ever had, oddly called the Executioner – perhaps because the stoker who operated it was dead tired by the end of every day.
The attractions really are the cherry on the cake though, and make a great museum truly, truly superb. Although, even without them, the museum itself and its many locomotives will win you over with their elegance, beauty and power. The Spoorwegmuseum is definitely a must visit if you’re in the Netherlands.