25th anniversary of Thalys: how did it start?

source: Thalys

Happy birthday to Thalys! This Wednesday, 2 June, marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of the TGV Thalys. On 2 June 1996, the TGV replaced all conventional trains between Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam, and improved the rail links between the cities considerably. 

Since the 1980s, a project for an international high-speed train had been in the making. In October 1987, a political decision in Brussels was made to build a high-speed network between France and northern Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany and the UK.

In the Netherlands, the project presented to the Dutch parliament in 1991 was first rejected. This was before the HSL-Zuid was approved in 1996 as a major project, and an agreement was reached with Belgium on a route via Breda, and not via Roosendaal. Germany, on the other hand, did not opt for a new line between Aachen and Cologne, but for a renovated track section at 250 kilometres per hour only between Duren and Cologne.

Before Thalys

Before the inauguration date in 1996, traffic between Paris and the Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as to Cologne was carried out by pulled trains. Mostly French CC40100 or Belgian 15, 16 and 18 series interoperable locomotives were used. In the mid-1990s, up to twelve pairs of trains ran between Paris and Brussels via Mons. Six of which continued their journey toward the Netherlands via Roosendaal, Rotterdam, The Hague and Amsterdam. Another handful of trains ran along the Walloon route in Belgium to Charleroi, Namur and Liège, and then on to Aachen and Cologne.

New trains, new logo

In January 1995, the logo and a name for the future high-speed service of TGV-Northern Europe was chosen under the brand name Thalys, which has no particular meaning. The networks involved in the TGV-Northern Europe wanted their own brand name that could be pronounced in all the languages of the countries served.

On Sunday 2 June 1996, all trains between Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam were switched to TGV, while the high-speed network was far from complete, including in Belgium. The Thalys only ran four times a day to Amsterdam and Cologne, but much more between Brussels and Paris. All these trains were operated with Alstom TGV trains, similar to those used by SNCF on its own network, because at the time there was no other choice. The ICEs that Siemens built for Deutsche Bahn were only designed for Germany.

Full opening of the high-speed network

The first TGV line in Belgium was inaugurated in December 1997, towards France. Over the years, the network was extended in accordance with the 1987 agreement, resulting in four new lines, the last of which was opened in December 2009 toward Breda, at the same time as the Dutch HSL-Zuid project. So, there was a complete high-speed line between Paris and Amsterdam, except for the 45 kilometre part between the north of Brussels and Antwerp, where Thalys runs on an existing line. The full journey between the two capitals takes 3 hours and 20 minutes instead of 5 hours and 18 minutes by the Trans-Europ-Express. On the route toward Germany, the full journey from Paris to Cologne takes 3 hours and 23 minutes instead of 5 hours and 10 minutes by the better express via Namur.

The TGV service was gradually expanded to its current state. In 2019, there were fourteen pairs of Thalys trains between Brussels and Amsterdam and five pairs between Brussels and Cologne, most extended to Essen or Dortmund. All the traffic is managed with 26 TGV trains from the manufacturer Alstom. Up to this day, Thalys has had no plans to renew its rolling stock.Current map of the Thalys network

In April 2016, Thalys launched a service called “IZY”, with only one return trip per day between Brussels and Paris, in order to take shares in the growing buses and carpooling market. This TGV leaves the high-speed network near Arras, France, and runs on the classic French network until Paris.

Surviving the corona crisis

In 2019, the last ‘normal’ year of reference, Thalys had over 7.5 million passengers. In addition, plans for a merger with Eurostar, which operates to and from London, came to light. This project has been delayed for the moment. Thalys, which had to face a severe drop in traffic due to the pandemic, has secured a loan totalling 120 million euros from five banks in order to ensure its survival. “The transaction secures the future of Thalys,” said the company on the financing agreement.

Thalys’ 25th anniversary is therefore taking place in a difficult context, but also with a gradual resumption of train operations and the summer season ahead.

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Author: Frédéric de Kemmeter

Frédéric de Kemmeter is signalling technician and railway policy observer.

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