Eventually, I realized that I was supposed to transfer at Brussel-Noord, a couple of stops earlier, and that my intended train and I had crossed paths. I tried to decide whether to take the Thalys to be only slightly late to meet fanlain (in fact, she ended up getting her luggage around the time the Thalys was supposed to arrive), or to take the normal train and be another half hour later. But they wanted €51 for the Thalys ticket, and I decided that my time with fanlain was not quite that precious.
So I got on the next train and made it to Antwerp, where we caught up with the Thalys, and then the train got stuck. They explained that there was a problem with the track, and we had to take another train to Kappelen, then a bus to Essen, and then another train from there. Just as I was figuring out where to go, I ran into another faculty member from ECE, who was in Brussels for a couple of days and decided to take a short trip to Amsterdam before returning. I think his company was the only thing that made the next four hours bearable.
The train to Kappelen was crowded, but manageable. There we found a huge horde of people, waiting for buses. One bus came, quickly filled to capacity, and went on its way. 15 minutes later, another bus came. The driver of this one was more strict and would only allow people who could get seats onto his bus. While we were figuring this out, a second bus pulled up and filled to capacity as well. Finally, a city bus was recruited into the shuttle effort. That driver didn't insist that people sit down, so we all packed in like sardines and were on our way.
The distance to Essen (Belgium, not the one in Germany) was less than 20km, but on small roads and through cities with traffic, so it took us most of an hour to make the trip. When we arrived, we saw a local train just pulling away from the station. The next one would be in 30 minutes, they told us. We at least got some water and chips; our hopes of finding some actual food were dashed when we discovered that every place in Essen was closed.
30 minutes later, the local train arrived, dumped a crowd of people who were going through the same hell, but in the other direction, and filled up again. We even got seats! The train then proceeded to sit on the track for another 20 minutes, waiting for some indeterminate event, while we all started to bake on the inside. When the train finally closed its doors and pulled away, everyone inside applauded.
Arriving at the next stop, Rosendaal, we were directed to another track, where we could see a train to Amsterdam just pulling away. Fortunately, at this point things were a little more organized and they sent an extra train to Amsterdam just for us. The train had to wait on the track a few times, but it did get us to Amsterdam, four hours after we were originally supposed to arrive. A had graciously gone to pick up fanlain from the airport at that point, so I got to meet them at a cafe near Centraal.
That will show me for raving about the great train service in Europe! At least the train ride back was uneventful...