Last week I wrote about my first (and, so far, only) trip to Amsterdam by Eurostar, which I took in June 2018 to attend that year’s World of Coffee event. Sadly, it was only a short trip, with just enough time for a day at World of Coffee, 2½ days exploring Amsterdam’s speciality coffee scene and the annual off-season gathering of the Surrey Scorchers’ TV Commentators’ club. Then, the following Tuesday afternoon, having spent the morning visiting more coffee shops, I was back at Amsterdam Centraal Station to catch my train home.
At the time of writing, Eurostar runs two direct services a day (afternoon and evening) from Amsterdam to St Pancras International, but three years ago, with the service only having just started, you had to take a Thalys high-speed train from Amsterdam to Brussels-Midi, where you changed onto a London-bound Eurostar service. This is because on Eurostar, you clear passport control and customs for both countries when you board the train. At the time, Amsterdam Centraal didn’t have the necessary facilities, so Eurostar allowed you to book a through ticket, combining the Thalys and Eurostar services, an option which is (slightly disappointingly) no longer available.
I spent the morning visiting Scandinavian Embassy and Back to Black‘s cafe on Weteringstraat before I made my way up to Amsterdam Centraal to catch my Thalys. This was the 15:17 service to Lille Europe, although I was only going as far as Brussels-Midi. Although it was technically an international service (Netherlands, Belgium and France) since there are no border controls between the three countries, it was just like boarding a normal train.
I arrived at the station 15 minutes early and my train (which started at Amsterdam) was already on the platform when I arrived. It was one of the Thalys TGV-R trainsets, built in 1996, with a pair of power cars topping and tailing eight carriages, the power cars slightly taller than the carriages. There were three first class carriages at the back, a café bar in the middle, then four second class carriages at the front, which is where I was, in carriage 37 (the numbers ran from 31, at the back, to 38!).
The carriages are about four metres shorter than their Eurostar (e320) equivalents (roughly 20 metres versus 24 metres), with doors at one end. Each door has a pair of fold-down seats, one on either side, although since all the tickets come with seat reservations, I’m not sure these are ever used. Next come the large luggage racks and the toilets, then there’s a small compartment, which might be reserved for families. This has a set of four seats on either side, each with a small table with foldout leaves for the seats by the windows, and is separated from main compartment by glass windows and sliding door. The main body of the carriage has five rows of airline-style seats, followed by a set of four seats with a central table (which again has foldout leaves) and then another five rows of airline-style seats, this time facing the other way. In all, each (standard class) carriage has 56 seats, which compares to 76 in the Eurostar e320.
Although part of the difference can be explained by the shorter carriages, the main reason is that the seats are much more spacious. Ideally, I would have liked a table seat, but when booking through Eurostar, I wasn’t given a choice, just assigned a seat (73, as it turned out) which was airline-style. However, there was plenty of legroom, plus a large, fold-down table in the seatback in front which had more than enough room for my laptop, unlike the equivalent Eurostar seats, where I would be struggling.
Like the Eurostar trains, there is plenty of luggage storage space, including large overhead luggage racks over the seats. One neat feature is the power outlets, with two for each pair of seats. Unlike the Eurostar, where they are under your seat, these are really easy to access (which makes plugging things in very simple). In the airline-style seats, they are between the seats in front, while for the table seats, they’re in the central leg of table. I wish all power outlets were this easy to get to!
Unlike the direct Eurostar services, which only stop at Rotterdam on the way to/from Brussels, my Thalys called at Schiphol, Rotterdam and Antwerp, so if you are doing the return leg by Thalys and transferring at Brussels-Midi, it does offer a little more flexibility. Despite these stops, the journey from Amsterdam to Brussels takes just under two hours, which is a fair bit quicker than the Eurostar.
Leaving Amsterdam, the train ran fairly quickly (120 km/h) to Schiphol, where we arrived at 15:35, covering the distance from Amsterdam Centraal in 18 minutes. After that we were on high-speed lines, all the way to Antwerp, with speeds around 300 km/h. We reached Rotterdam in under 20 minutes, arriving at 15:53 and made it into Antwerp at 16:32. Although we were covering the ground in good time, there was one thing that slowed us down. Compared to British trains, which spend very little time at the platform, each of these stops involved a five-minute layover.
Unlike the journey out, when there were no onboard ticket checks on the Eurostar, someone came through to check our tickets just as we left Rotterdam (you also had to scan your ticket to get into Amsterdam Centraal). I also note that the café bar closed at Rotterdam (where this is a regular thing, I don’t know), which meant that if you wanted something, you the first 35 minutes of the journey, after which you were on your own. As it was, I’d already stocked up with a quiche from Back to Black, so I stayed where I was.
After leaving Antwerp Central, we left the high-speed lines and were back to line speeds of 100 – 160 km/h. By British standards, this is fairly quick, but after a high-speed line, it felt rather slow, which might explain why, on the way out, I felt as if the Eurostar was crawling along once it left Brussels. If you’re wondering about my claims of the train speed, the Thalys has free Wifi, which, when you log on, gives you a landing page, complete with a map to show you where you are, and a real-time speed reading.
We were a little bit delayed leaving Antwerp and lost another couple of minutes as we crossed Belgium. Scheduled to arrive at 17:08, we actually pulled into Brussels-Midi at 17:18, ten minutes late. Now all I had to do was find the Eurostar terminal and check in…
Brussels-Midi is a fairly large and busy station, serving both domestic as well as international services, like the one I’d arrived on. However, thanks to the need to conduct the passport and customs checks, Eurostar leaves from its own self-contained terminal within the station (much as it does at St Pancras International). The trick, of course, was to find the terminal, which was well signposted, albeit with the smallest of signs.
In the end, the route turned out to be fairly simple: just walk along the platform, go down to the hall running underneath the stations and keep walking until you see the terminal off to the left. My Eurostar was due to leave at 17:56 which, even allowing that we had got to Brussels-Midi 10 minutes late, still allowed me nearly 40 minutes to check in, clear security and do passport control and customs. Although it was annoying to have the change of trains and the additional 40 minutes, it’s worth bearing in mind that I’d have still needed this 40-minute check in buffer (or longer) if I’d been travelling on a direct train from at Amsterdam. So, in reality, it wasn’t much slower.
I reached the back of the check-in queue at 17:22, less than five minutes after getting off the train. Checking in was fairly quick, since the queue was short and moved very quickly. However, immediately after that was a much longer queue for security, which had just two X-ray machines for all the standard class passengers, while business/premium economy passengers had a third machine all to themselves (with no-one using it!). That took the bulk of the time before going through passport control to leave Belgium (manual check of the passport) and then straight through UK passport control with its e-readable passport gates.
In all, it took me just over 20 minutes to get through the various stages and into the lounge, by which time the train had almost finished boarding. I had about 10 minutes, which wasn’t really long enough to explore the lounge, which seemed quite small, certainly not big enough to hold a full Eurostar’s worth of passengers. I only spotted one café, which was off to the left as I went through and walked straight up onto the platform and onto the train.
Just as I had on the way out, I was travelling in a new e320, so I won’t repeat what I said in my previous post, where you can find details of the train and the standard class seating. Once again, I had a table seat, this time seat 72 in Carriage 11. However, this service was much quieter than the one on the way out, which isn’t very surprising considering that it was now Tuesday rather than Friday evening! As a result, I had the four seats at the table all to myself, a happy state of affairs which continued for the whole two-hour journey, despite more passengers getting on at Lille-Europe.
Once we’d left Brussels behind, the line to Lille was very rural and mostly farmland, so we sped happily along on the high-speed line. On the way out, we’d sped through Lille without stopping, but this time we had to pull into the station to pick up more passengers, something which added a surprising amount to the journey time. Whereas on the way out, it was a little more than 20 minutes from Lille to Brussels, here it was closer to 40 minutes before we were on our way again.
From Lille-Europe, it was another half an hour to the Channel Tunnel, which we entered at 19:02, local time, emerging into Kent at 18:25, having gained an hour! We made our second stop at Ebbsfleet International just over 20 minutes later, which might be the first time I’ve stopped at Ebbsfleet. Then it was under the River Thames and a 20-minute run into St Pancras International, where we arrived a few minutes late at 19:11.
Since all the checks had been done when we boarded at Brussels-Midi, there really is very little to do at St Pancras other than walk down the platform to take the escalators at the far end down. From there, it’s a stroll through arrivals and out onto the concourse (I still remember the early days of returning on the Eurostar to Waterloo and having to go through Customs there).
Talking of Waterloo, I still had to get across London and catch my train home to Guildford. I thought my adventures would be over, but alas, when I arrived at Waterloo, I found that all the trains were delayed or cancelled due to high temperatures causing problems with the rails. I ended up on the 19:03 slow train to Guildford (which left at 20:20!) and finally go home just before 22:00.
That concludes my return journey from Amsterdam on Eurostar,. If you want to know more about the trip as a whole, check out the trip’s Travel Spot Page.
With Eurostar now running direct return services from Amsterdam as well as direct services to Amsterdam, this post is something of a historical oddity. That said, Thalys and Eurostar are in the process of merging, with the joint service to be operated under the Eurostar brand, so this might lead to more Eurostar/Thalys through ticketing arrangements like the one I used.
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