Two of Europe's biggest rail operators are merging to create a combined high-speed network that serves the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium.

Cross-Channel high-speed rail service, Eurostar, is joining forces with the French-Belgian rail operator Thalys to expand services across Europe. For travelers, this merger gives them a greater choice of simplified journeys on a single ticket.

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Thalys already serves France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, but it doesn't currently have operations in the UK.

Eurostar, meanwhile, has a pretty extensive network that operates out of St Pancras station in London; delivering passengers across the Channel Tunnel to French cities like Calais, Paris, Lille and Lyon and, in winter, to the Alps. It also offers a high-speed service to Brussels, Rotterdam and, most recently, Amsterdam.

What it doesn't have is a direct link to Germany — but that will change when the merger is complete.

Eurostar female staff member in uniform peeks out of passenger door on train
Passengers will be able to travel direct from the UK to Germany by train © Jonathan Hordle/Getty Images for Eurostar

What are the benefits for passengers?

For the first time, UK passengers will be able to directly connect with Germany by high-speed rail, with trains potentially running from London to Cologne (a journey that would take five-and-a-half hours), Düsseldorf, Essen, Aachen and Dortmund — destinations that are currently operated by Thalys.

Trains could also travel to Bordeaux from London and more Belgian cities including Antwerp and Liège. The Alps service could also be extended for winter holidaymakers.

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Sophie Dutordoir, CEO of Belgian rail company SNCB and chairman of the board for Thalys told Euronews that the merger will bring about many benefits for passengers, including increased connectivity, improved scheduling and ticketing, and a common loyalty program across the combined network.

"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," she said.

Houses of the Guilds at the Grote Markt in Antwerp, Belgium under a pink evening sky
British passengers could soon travel from London to Antwerp by rail. ©Ventura Carmona via Getty

It follows an ambitious rollout of night services across European railways as operators continue to lure passengers out of cars and planes in favor of more climate-friendly journeys.

The project, codenamed Green Speed Project, is backed by French state-owned railway company SNCF and the National Railway Company of Belgium, who own stakes in both Eurostar and Thalys. It was given the green-light by the European Commission last month, after it agreed the merger would not go against EU competition rules.

Guillaume Pepy (chairman of SNCF and Eurostar) said the climate emergency and the increasing demand for more sustainable means of travel "calls for an ambitious response" i.e. the creation of a combined European high-speed rail network. 

"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," he said in a statement.

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This article was first published Oct 2, 2019 and updated Apr 28, 2022.

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