Amsterdam’s council has helpfully explained that it only wants rich tourists in future

Luckily rich people never take cocaine. Image: Getty.

Amsterdam has a new resolution for 2017: care less. Between Christmas and the New Year – when everyone was still scrambling to work out which way was up and who shoved Uncle Richard’s homemade mince pies behind the radiator – the city council announced that it was upping the city’s tourist tax. This will reduce the number of cheap hostels in the city centre, while having little impact on the more expensive hotels.

Then, channelling the spirit of bah-humbug and DGAF, the council explained that they were doing this in an attempt to get rid of the budget tourists. And the stag parties. And pretty much anyone whose travel budget doesn’t extend to more than €50 a night. It’s a bold move: attack to defend, accuse yourself of elitism before committed carpers like myself have even logged onto Twitter.

Amsterdam alderman Udo Kock explained to Dutch newspaper Parool that 28 per cent of tourists visiting the city book into budget hotels – and “that has to be reduced”. The city’s plan to reduce the number of budget bookings involves slashing tourist tax breaks and changing the way tourist tax is calculated.

Right now tourists pay 5 per cent of the cost of their room when they check out – a system that the under-paid and much beleaguered hotel concierges just lurve explaining to hungover guests. In the future a split fee might be introduced; that’d mean the guest paid a fixed amount per night, plus a percentage of the hotel bill.

Kock and co claim that scrapping tax deductibles like agency fees while increasing the tourist tax will raise an extra €4m for the city in 2017. This extra money will presumably be spent washing the pleb-ooze off park benches and training a flock of iPhone carrying bluebirds to escort all the “quality” tourists to their “quality” hotels.

It gets better: in 2018, the increased tourist tax will bring in €9m, and encourage tourists to spread out across the city. This is a kind of divide and conquer style, where every borough gets a Minion-themed stag party, rather than letting the city centre hoard them all in some kind of weird, central, easily accessible, tourist district.

Anti-tourist rumblings first made headlines back in 2014, when high profile Amsterdam residents began complaining about the volume of visitors invading the city. Rijksmuseum chief Wim Pijbes claimed that tourists were causing the city to become “full”, “dirty” and “sleazy”, a description that travel companies are probably using verbatim for promotional purposes.

Following Pijbes’ complaints a number of Dutch politicians also expressed concerns over tourist numbers. A campaign was launched to encourage people to visit different parts of the city; a group of residents petitioned the mayor to crack down on disruptive tourists; the city put a stop to new hotel development; and a scheme was launched to calm tourists down via the universally soothing practise of sporadically flashing lights.


This latest attempt to dissuade low-income tourists from polluting visiting Amsterdam is the result of a familiar, yet grotesquely flawed, belief that wealthy tourists spend their holidays quietly, unobtrusively, spending money. Meanwhile the rank and file swim around in the city gutters – regurgitating cigarette butts into letter boxes, dousing everything with bodily fluids, and demanding to know why the local casino doesn’t take Love To Shop vouchers.

Evidence of this thinking can already be seen in ongoing attempts to gentrify the Amsterdam Red Light District. Despite being one of the city’s most commercially viable and popular areas, the Red Light District has remained remarkably accessible to all kinds of businesses. Independent brothels operated next to chain burger bars and eco-friendly sex shops while family-held businesses are commonplace. In 2008, however, the city council announced they would “clean-up” the Red Light District and began replacing the famous brothels and coffee shops with designer boutiques.

Set aside accusations of gentrification, landgrabs, offensive stereotyping and coded language: it doesn’t make sense for a city that makes so much money from the tourism industry to start pulling up the drawbridge in pursuit of a comparatively small pay-off.

As with most outwardly baffling, apparently self-sabotaging, schemes, though some of the blame for Amsterdam city council’s latest announcement can be attributed to Brexit. Yes, Amsterdam is swimming in tourist euros but it’s also attractive to international investors. With financial companies pulling out of post-Brexit London, a plethora of corporate tax breaks, an established international community and a “progressive spirit”, forecasters are already predicting that Amsterdam could become Europe’s next financial centre.

All of this means that 2017 really is looking like a win-win scenario for Amsterdam city council’s aversion to budget tourism. If Amsterdam does become the next go-to place for tax-dodging multinational companies the lost budget tourist euros will have little impact on the city’s income. And if the city is undercut by established tax havens like Luxembourg or Geneva (concerns have been raised over Dutch salary caps) at least the council will have freed up more space for the wealthy tourists to park.

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.