The Rhine bifurcation at Pannerden forms the major distribution point for water supply in the Netherlands, distributing not only water and sediment but also flooding risks and navigability. Its morphological stability has been a concern for centuries. We present experiences from more than two decades of numerical morphological modelling of this bifurcation with a gravel–sand bed and a meandering planform. Successive computations have shown the importance of upstream approach conditions, the necessity to include physical mechanisms for grain sorting and alluvial roughness, and the need to assume a thicker active layer of the river bed than is suggested by laboratory flume experiments using a constant discharge. The active layer must be thicker in the model to account for river bed variations due to higher-frequency discharge variations that are filtered out in morphological modelling. We discuss limitations in calibration and verification, but argue that, notwithstanding these limitations, 2D and 3D morphological models are valuable tools, not only for pragmatic applications to engineering problems, but also for revealing the limitations of established knowledge and understanding of the relevant physical processes. The application of numerical models to the Pannerden bifurcation appeared to reveal shortcomings in established model formulations that do not pose particular problems in other cases. This application is therefore particularly useful for setting the agenda for further research. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.