Thalys: 25 years old and a future to consolidate

07/06/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling
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(Version en français)

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.

Before high speed train
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.

(photo wikipedia)

The TGV-Nord Europe project
Meanwhile, in the 1980s, a project for an international high speed train was work in progress:

  • 26 October 1987: Political decision in Brussels to build a high-speed network between France and northern Europe.
  • 1993: Creation of the first international IPM working group, whose task was to define the organisational structure of the future railway company to be created.
  • January 1995: Making of the logo and a name for the future high-speed service of TGV-Northern Europe: it will be Thalys, a name which has no meaning. TGV North needed its own name, because it was not going to be ‘just another’ train. Thalys is a name with a particularly French sound, but internationally easy to pronounce.
  • May 1995: Westrail International is founded as a cooperative company under Belgian law, a joint subsidiary of SNCF and SNCB, with the Dutch railways (NS) and the German railways (DB) joining in. The mission of this company was to create and manage a high-speed train services on the entire TGV-North network.

The HST project in Belgium aroused political passions like never before, at a time when the country was becoming federal (1989). It took a lot of negotiating skills to get four new lines totalling 220 km built on Belgian territory. The first works started in 1993.

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.

Lage Zwaluwe, the Netherlands (photo Rob Dammers via wikipedia)

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. However, a few pulled trains remained to run on the Walloon route via Charleroi and Namur, as well as the famous Paris-Amsterdam night train passing through Brussels. 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. Germany was content to upgrade the flat section between Düren and Cologne to 250km/h, while the winding section between Aachen and Düren remains restricted to a maximum speed of 160km/h. Since 2009, there was a complete high-speed line between Paris and Amsterdam, except for the 45 kilometres 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 19 minutes instead of 5 hours and 18 minutes by the better Trans-Europ-Express. On the route toward Germany, the full journey from Paris to Cologne takes 3 hours and 23 minutes instead of5 hours and 10 minutes by the better express via Namur.

The TGV service was gradually expanded to its current state. In 2019, there were 26 pairs of trains between Paris and Brussels, 14 between Brussels and Amsterdam and 5 between Brussels and Cologne, most extended to Essen or Dortmund. All the traffic was – and is still – managed with 27 TGV trains from the manufacturer Alstom. Up to this day, Thalys has no plan to renew its rolling stock.

2015: a new company
For about twenty years, Thalys was above all a commercial brand. Train management, distribution, and ticket sales remained the prerogative of its two main shareholders SNCF and SNCB. At the end of 2015, it took over all railway operations and evolved into a fully-fledged railway company under the name THI Factory. The change of ownership has resulted in an increase in the number of Thalys employees from 200 to 550. For the first time, Thalys could communicate directly with its own staff on board its trains in France and Belgium instead of going through SNCF or SNCB. Train drivers, who used a tablet for each network, now received a single tablet. The fact that Thalys became a rail operator also means that Thalys itself has to apply for train paths to the four infrastructure managers where its high-speed trains run (SNCF Réseau, Infrabel, Pro Rail and DB Netz).

In 2020, Thalys made a major strategic shift by taking over the distribution and direct sale of tickets. They added the final piece to the puzzle and became its own distributor and started selling its train tickets directly on its own digital channels (websites, mobile applications). 

ISY service departing Brussels-Midi, with a TGV-Réseau trainset (photo

Today, it has two train brands and two websites dedicated to reservations: Thalys and its low-cost little brother IZY. IZY was launched in April 2016, 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 7.8 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. In 2020, Thalys transported only 2.5 million travelers, compared to 2019. “ The pandemic we are experiencing is the most serious crisis in our history. For over a year, travel restrictions have been taking a heavy toll on travelers and, of course, people in our company ” , said CEO Bertrand Gosselin. In May, the company has secured a loan totalling 120 million euros from five banks in order to ensure its survival. “The transaction secures the future of Thalys,” explains the company.

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.

(photo Thalys pressroom)

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