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The phantom 17.55 from Paris Nord

By Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries |

Opinion

A Thalys high-speed train pauses at Liège-Guillemins station in eastern Belgium (photo © hidden europe).

A Thalys high-speed train pauses at Liège-Guillemins station in eastern Belgium (photo © hidden europe).

Thalys is the only rail operator to offer direct train services from Paris to Germany’s Rhein-Ruhr region. These trains run non-stop from Paris to Brussels, then continue via Liège and Aachen to Cologne. Some services continue beyond Cologne to Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Essen and Dortmund.

Thalys faces competition from Deutsche Bahn’s ICE service between Brussels and Cologne, but for many city pairs – such as Paris to Cologne or Brussels to Düsseldorf – Thalys is in the enviable position of holding a virtual monopoly on key business routes.

The basic 2020 timetable, one which was of course rudely wrecked by COVID-19, looked much the same as that for 2019. Five trains a day from Paris to Cologne, with four of those five trains continuing beyond Cologne to Düsseldorf and the Ruhr region. As in previous years, there were minor timetable variations at weekends and during the French summer holidays.

We really like the look and feel of the Thalys product so, like many European travellers, we fully expected to be riding the rails with Thalys in 2020.

Timetables for COVID times

The pandemic put paid to Thalys’ and our best-laid plans. By late March, as the first wave of Coronavirus swept across western Europe, Thalys' 2020 schedules were already being thinned out. Cancellations aplenty! And that was surely wise in a weak travel market. For a spell, there were simply no Thalys trains running east from Brussels to Liège or destinations in Germany. The company focused just on its services from Brussels to Paris and Amsterdam, and even there with only a minmal service.

Latterly, Thalys’ emergency timetable has shown three departures each day from Paris to Germany, with all three trains running right through to Dortmund. That sounds good, but in practice we have noted that while the 07.55 and 15.55 trains do normally seem to run, the 17.55 from Paris to Dortmund is almost always cancelled. This is very tough on passengers travelling from provincial stations in France via Paris and expecting to connect onto the last direct train of the day from Paris Nord to destinations in Germany.

Managing customer expectations

Thalys has now published schedules for travel up to four months hence. For journeys in early 2021, right through to the end of February, the current timetable of three Thalys trains each day from Paris to Germany still broadly holds (although on most Mondays there is an extra morning departure, making four trains in all).

It would, we think, be a brave passenger who books on that last train of the day from Paris to Germany. So regularly has the 17.55 been cancelled that our guess is that, if there’s no dramatic uptake in business and leisure travel, this train is a sure candidate for cancellation in January and February 2021.

Would it not, in these difficult times, be so much better if operators initially open sales only for those trains which would run in the most skeleton timetable? If the pandemic abates, everyone will be delighted to then see operators responding quickly by adding in extra trains to meet renewed demand. But being overoptimistic and then having to cancel trains which have been booked in good faith is immensely disruptive for passengers.

Eurostar too!

Thalys is not the only culprit here. Eurostar has in recent months consistently cancelled morning trains from London to Paris – services which were advertised for sale over a long period, and then cancelled relatively close to the date of travel. The only two Eurostar services from London to Paris upon which one can really rely these days are the 10.24 and 12.24 departures.

Eurostar do of course say “If your service is cancelled, we will contact you approximately 7 days before departure to notify you of the cancellation.” All well and good, but if passengers plan to leave London earlier to connect in Paris onto onward trains, it’s no consolation to hear a week prior to travel that their entire itinerary has been derailed.

For some days in February, Eurostar is currently selling tickets for twelve trains to Paris. That seems to us to be hugely optimistic, but we hope to be proved wrong on that.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
hidden europe
About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 16th edition of that book was published in October 2019. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

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