Eurostar is set to expand its European routes by merging with Belgian operator Thalys, for a more comprehensive high-speed rail network that will connect the UK with Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium as well as more of France.
Although plans for a merger were first announced in October 2019, they were held up by the slump in rail travel during the pandemic.
Now the European Commission has approved the merger, confirming the news on Tuesday.
Known as the “Green Speed Project”, it’s backed by the French state-owned railway company SNCF and the National Railway Company of Belgium, both of which own stakes in both Eurostar and Thalys.
It’s part of the EU’s wider plans to increase its high-speed train travel network, promoting rail travel as an environmentally friendly alternative to flying.
Sophie Dutordoir, CEO of Belgian rail company SNCB and chairman of the board for Thalys, told Euronews: “This merger project is based on the firm belief that trains are the most sustainable, fast, efficient and safest way to travel in Europe – now more than ever.”
The merger means the Eurostar service will be extended further into Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as connecting the UK to Germany with high-speed trains.
Eurostar currently runs high-speed services from London to Paris, Brussels, Lille, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, through the Channel Tunnel.
But in the coming years, passengers can expect high-speed links from London to Cologne, Germany – in around five-and-a-half hours – as well as current Thalys destinations Düsseldorf, Essen, Aachen and Dortmund.
Direct trains to Bordeaux, Antwerp and Liège could also become a reality.
In a 2019 statement, Eurostar CEO Mike Cooper said: “As you may be aware, the shareholders of Eurostar have today announced their ambition to bring together Eurostar and Thalys, the French-Belgian high speed rail operator, to create one unified European high speed rail company.
“This is an exciting development for our customers as it will enable us to offer you a more extensive network, increased connectivity and frequency of service and a fleet operating on renewable energy.
“By joining forces with Thalys we will be able to expand our reach and at the same time provide a powerful response to the increasingly serious climate change challenge and the growing demand for sustainable travel.”
It follows long-term, ambitious designs by Germany’s Green Party for a comprehensive network of night trains that would connect the UK with destinations including Barcelona, Paris, Copenhagen and Stockholm.
The proposed network would see some 40 sleeper services operating across the continent, with routes extending as far as Edinburgh, Glasgow and Birmingham as well as London. It’s part of a wider trend of developing new sleeper train services to improve low-carbon transcontinental travel.
Meanwhile, the Dutch-Belgium run European Sleeper has plans to start up during 2022, departing Brussels in the evening and zipping through Antwerp, Amsterdam, Berlin and Dresden before arriving in Prague.
Tickets were originally set to go on sale in April, with fares yet to be announced, but a statement on the company’s website says the launch date and ticket sales are still to be confirmed.