I love trains! Always have. Travelling from Paris to Amsterdam recently, the logical thing was to book a flight.In fact, the friends I was meeting, assumed I would fly in.
There is an amazing alternative, which means I got to ride a train! Thalys is a direct train service using High Speed lines to key destinations on two routes: Paris-Brussels-Cologne-Essen and Paris-Brussels-Antwerp-Amsterdam. Thalys International company is owned by the SNCF French Railways -62%, Belgium Railways (NMBS/SNCB ) -28% and German Railways ( Deutsche Bahn) -10%.
Thalys has no meaning and can be spoken, understood and recognised by travellers from all of the countries served by its trans. The Thalys logo is a feminine face in profile over a white arrow symbolising speed.
The distance between Paris and Amsterdam is 430 km (267 miles). I proved to myself (and to my friends) that there is absolutely no reason to fly between the two cities. The plane takes 1 hour 15 minutes. Add travel time to and from the airport at each end (say an hour total) and check in time (an hour), your travel time is about the same.
Booking- 8 out of 10
Bookings for these trains is compulsory. You cannot just rock up and buy a seat on board. Thalys on line booking system is very easy. The website is available in English, French, Dutch and German. Thalys offer two fare classes:
- Comfort One- more room- a meal served at the seat, free WiFi and free newspapers
- Comfort Two-standard economy class
Boarding- 10 out of 10
The train left from Gare du Nord, a sprawling station in the North of Paris. The station is home to Eurostar trains to London, Thalys, SNCF High Speed and Regional Regional Trains, RER suburban lines and Metro lines.
Guess who was late? I got to Gare du Nord with only minutes to spare. Train doors on Thalys close two minutes before departure usually, so I rushed along the platform. Concerned I would run out of time hopped onto the first Comfort One carriage I saw hoping I could walk through the train. Unfortunately I discovered that the train was a combination of two train sets joined together. I could not walk into the front train set! Worse, is that while the front train set was going all the way to Amsterdam, the rear train set would be de coupled at Brussels. The train guard who happily accommodated me in a new seat, advised me I had five minutes at Brussels to move to the front train. He also advised the other guard of my situation so he would be looking out for me.
At Brussels, he helped get me off the train, cleared some Belgian students from my path and pointed in the direction of the front of the train. Great service. I boarded my correct carriage and found my seat easily.
What impressed me was that the train needed only a five minute wait time in Brussels and this including decoupling two trains. Why does Amtrak insist on a 30 minute wait for its Northeast regional services in New York?
Thalys has two types of train: PBA and PBKA, all owned by the French railways and painted a cherry red with a silver stripe with the exception of the Tintin train, specially painted last year for the launch of the movie!. The PBA
of which there are nine of them can operate using three different types of overhead electric curent and the PBKA (17 exist) can use the four different types found on their routes. Top speed of the trains is 185mph or 300km/h. The pantographs on the Thalys trains had to be modified to limit their extension, to allow them to operate in the Netherlands which has some very low drawbridges.
On Board- 10 out of 10
Comfort One was about two thirds full and felt very roomy. Seats are arranged 1/2. In Comfort Two seats are arranged 2/2 . Carriage layout is here.
There was plenty of luggage room above the seats and at each end of the carriage. Officially, each traveler is entitled to a maximum of two suitcases and a piece of hand luggage. I had a table for my laptop. There was a power outlet for recharging.
Thalys did not provide a detailed safety briefing. Announcements were multi lingual and minimal.
Meal – 5 out of 10
My seat in Comfort One included a free meal served to my seat. The “meal” consisted of a choice of a sweet or savoury pastry, a yoghurt and a drink. I chose Perrier! This is hardly a meal. It was mid afternoon so I wonder if at lunch or dinner times, there is something more substantial?
Service was friendly and very multi lingual. The staff served every customer in the carriage in their own language.
There is a bar in the middle of the train serves drinks, sandwiches and hot dishes.
The Ride: 10 out of 10
The train smoothly accelerated out of Paris du Nord right on time on a mild and sunny Sunday afternoon. We rolled through the Paris suburbs and then 16.6 kilometres (10 miles) from Gare du Nord moved to the LGV Nord high speed line which takes trains from Paris to Lille, London and the Belgian border. Euostar trains use this line and there are even direct trains from London to Eurodisney which pass this way. Very soon, my cell phone chirped twice to tell me it was changing phone providers from the French to Belgian phone services. This was the only sign that I had crossed the border into Belgium.We were now running on the Belgian High Speed line HSL 1 (see Wikipedia map above) which continues until 17 kilometres from Brussels Midi Station. At that point maximum speed for the train falls to 200km/h (120mph). It was raining in Brussels and the city looked very grey compounded by the approaching dusk.
From Brussels to the Northern Belgian city of Antwerp a 47 kilometre trip, the train speed dropped to 160 kilometres per hour (100mph) on an upgraded regular line and the scenery outside got darker as evening drew in. After Antwerp, it was back to high speed running to the Dutch border (although in some countries 160km/h is considered high speed!). Another two chirps on my mobile told me I had switched from the Belgian to Dutch mobile network. Amazing that once upon a time, the train would have stopped for a border and customs inspection! We were now on the Hogesnelheidslijn Zuid, (High-Speed Line South!), the newest segment of this high speed line. It was dark now so I could not see much of the Dutch countryside. The train paused at Rotterdam and then sailed into Amsterdam station right on time after exactly 3 hours 19 minutes of train travel.
Noise inside the train was quite muted. Ride was very smooth.
Connecting to the free wifi was easy. Remaining connected was a challenge. Connection seemed to drop. Download speeds varied from reasonable to non existent. This was very frustrating.
My rating: 93% (4.5 out of 5).
Positives: Cabin, Roomy, free wifi, great staff, convenience, speed
Negatives: Meal, wifi slow
Would I ride them again? Yes, yes, yes.
Commentary: The distance on this route (430km -250miles) is about the same as Sydney to Coffs Harbour in Australia which takes the XPT (Express Passenger Train) eight hours 50 minutes.
In the USA, Chicago to Saint Louis is a similar distance – Amtrak takes five hours and 20 minutes (when on time..they were an hour delayed en route when I rode it last). On the East Coast Boston and Philadelphia, a similar distance will take four hours and 56 minutes with Acela and almost six hours by ordinary train. Its also about the same distance between Dallas and San Antonio which takes Amtrak 10 hours and 5 minutes.
Imagine shrinking all of those times down to just over 3 hours.
My last Trip Report: March 13: Gulf Air – Bahrain (BAH) to Abu Dhabi (AUH) Embraer 170