It’s official: the Thalys brand is no more. But rest assured that this legendary passenger service isn’t going to disappear from the European railway industry. It will simply drop the name in October 2023 and merge with the Eurostar brand, considered to be better known among travellers than Thalys.
SNCF, the majority stakeholder in both businesses, merged them on May 1 2022 into a single entity called Eurostar Group, headed up by Gwendoline Cazenave. The former boss of TGV Atlantique and associate at consultancy Oliver Wyman was also, as the magazine Capital points out, the director of finance, strategy and legal at Voyages SNCF, as well as operations director in Brittany. Far from being a newcomer in the railway industry, she now presides over the future of trains run by Eurostar between France and the UK since 1994 and those operated by Thalys between Paris, Benelux and parts of Germany since 1995. It’s a meeting of minds that, while marking the end of an era from a commercial point of view, is a very visible component of a strategic change of direction.
“We need a brand that’s unique and strong for our clients, one which becomes a symbol of the European network that we want to create”, explained Gwendoline Cazenave, announcing the end of the Thalys brand on January 24 2023. Initiated by Guillaume Pépy, the former CEO of SNCF, the merger aimed to optimise the use of the 25 Eurostar and 26 Thalys trains to increase the number of passengers on both networks. The aim? To reach 30 million annual travellers by 2030, up from 8.3 million and 6.5 million respectively (or a total of 14.8 million) in 2022. That figure is also well below the 19 million tickets sold by the two operators in 2019, when they were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. This was compounded by the devastating effects of Brexit, which almost ruined Eurostar in 2021. For its part, as the French newspaper Le Monde reports, Thalys has also had to be rescued by stakeholders in the recent past. Although it became profitable again in the second quarter of 2022, Eurostar Group has inherited cumulative debt of £850 million, or €960 million.
To bounce back successfully, the group is planning on centralising the two historic operators’ resources. When the Thalys brand disappears for good, passengers will have access to a new, unified commercial system. There will be a brand-new website, a mobile app, a new ticket reservation system and a loyalty programme that we hope will be as intuitive and user-friendly as you’d expect in our day and age. These different systems will work across all journeys via the new entity, whose customer services and passenger classes will be standardised by 2024 too. And on top of that, it’ll be getting a new visual identity: a star in an unfinished circle, forming an E for Eurostar Group and said to recall the mythical Etoile du Nord train that linked Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam between 1924 and 1996. As for the strapline, it’s as simple as it is unremarkable: Spark new opportunities. (That’s the only criticism we’d level at this exciting new railway venture.)
As for the use of rolling stock, the former Eurostar and Thalys services won’t be treated in the same way. The former will in fact be able to travel on all the routes of the latter from 2025, while the opposite won’t be true. So trains that have been travelling between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne will never pass under the English Channel. But almost as if it were compensation, they will be able to keep their famous red hue. “We’re not going to repaint every train”, Gwendoline Cazenave declared. After all, the colour of trains hardly matters as long as they are boosting a European railway network that’s dynamic, efficient and affordable in equal measure. This is essentially the aim of the European Commission in supporting ten international projects, including Midnight Trains.