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Eurostar plus Thalys equals Eurostar – but what does it mean for passengers?

My sole experience of the train operator formerly known as Thalys was distinctly odd, and involved my inadvertently becoming The Man Who Didn’t Pay His Way.

These were the circumstances: it was near the end of the first day of last summer’s amazing €9 travel-anywhere deal on German Railways. I had boarded my first train shortly after midnight on 1 June, and had travelled far and wide.

But, during the evening, the regional express schedules I depended upon had started to unravel badly. At around 11pm I found myself in Essen, with no coherent strategy for covering the last 40km from my appointed night-stop in Dortmund.

Several platforms away, I spotted an eastbound express drawing in: a Thalys train from Brussels, which was heading my way. Such a luxury conveyance was certainly not covered by my €9 ticket. A very brief discussion with the train crew established that, yes, I could buy a ticket on board. I jumped aboard.

From my point of view, the next few minutes started badly but swiftly improved.

The bad news: the fare for such an impromptu trip was €39. The good news: after several attempts by the on-board team to connect to the internet in order to process my credit card, they admitted defeat. Since the train was already racing along the Ruhr and they could not sell me a ticket, the staff graciously invited me to travel with the compliments of Thalys.

During the ensuing 20 minutes I assessed the Thalys product. Not worth €1-per-kilometre (except, as in my situation, when desperate). And strangely rooted in the 1980s from a design point of view. The decor – “a subtle mixture of red, purple and fuchsia” – felt drab and tired (as, coincidentally, did I).

The seats looked and felt as though they had been bought at an airline clearance auction of 1980s business class. Yes, I did feel ungrateful as I wrote my notes.

Sixteen months on, Thalys is no more. Nothing to do with me: it has merged with, and adopted the name, Eurostar.

The Thalys network is an odd one. The core artery is from Paris via Brussels to Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The other main line connects the Belgian capital with Liège, Aachen, Cologne and Düsseldorf – with that Ruhr extension from which I benefited, to Essen and Dortmund.

“Thalys” was never the strongest brand in travel. According to Railtech.com, the word “has no particular meaning”. Marketeers coined it as a brand name that could be pronounced in all the languages of the countries served.

Au contraire, Eurostar is known around the world. “Eurostar means cross borders; means European sustainable travel; means care for customers.” So says Gwendoline Cazenave, chief executive of the newly expanded enterprise.

“We had to decide which brand would we go for. The thing is: Eurostar is very well known overseas. In the United States when a tourist wants to travel by train in Europe, 50 per cent of them connect to the Eurostar website. They know us very well. So this is why we kept the Eurostar brand.”

What’s in the new name, though, for British travellers? François Le Doze, chief commercial officer at Eurostar, says it’s all about connectivity.

“If we talk about France, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, we can already improve and invest in those connecting experiences, help customers, guide them and make sure that they are taken care of all along the way – and also when things go wrong.

“I think what people fear when connecting trains is when things go wrong, they usually think about ‘What if I miss my train?’

“We really want to reassure them that we want to be there for them and work with other operators so that we really take care of the end-to-end journey.

“There is huge potential. Rather than sending trains further out, we can play on those trains that are there already but improve that connectivity.”

Cheap(ish) through tickets are already available: from London via Brussels to Essen, I am seeing plenty of seats in the weeks and months ahead for £65 one-way. The journey is scheduled for seven hours – because the morning connection at Brussels is over two hours. Sharpen that up, and I’ll be on board. Only this time I’ll pay.

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