Europe Echelon: Thalys Amsterdam-Centraal – Bruxelles-Midi Thalys PBA Comfort 2

The train I know I’ll never see you on.

You know, life has its ups and downs. And when you’re down and out, you try to make the best of it. You learn, and with each stumble, you get up and become a stronger person. The takeaways from the experience followed me to Belgium and France, and they’ve undoubtedly kept me safe and secure whilst there. It doesn’t stop overseas: even now, I don’t keep anything in my pocket, not even my phone. And my wallet is now deep set in the main compartment of my bags, not on the side. I’m also more weary when they’re crowds, and you have to be. If Europe has taught me one thing, it’s that you can’t be complacent. There’s no stereotype of a pickpocket or a thief, and with so many people in Singapore now, you can’t take chances.

I refuse to let the incident cloud my judgement of the Netherlands, and my subsequent days in Brussels and Paris. To be fair, I’ve had some good times – seeing Van Gogh’s work in the flesh, having such lovely piping hot pancakes, and getting invited to amazing parties and meeting so many friendly people. I look over at Alvin’s Facebook, and see that he has had a good time too – better than mine, in fact. Rather than being bitter bitter about it, I see it as a sign that one day, my visit to the Netherlands will be more awesome than it already was (considering the short time I’m here). I’ve learned that I need to be a smarter, more resilient traveler, and not just let the sights blind me into complacency. Alas, my time in Amsterdam is limited, and I’ve to continue my travels.

A last look at the hotel.

At Amsterdam Centraal station. It’s not actually this small. There are a few large sheds side by side.

Here it comes.

Time to board.

Connecting The Dots

Taking daytrips to another city is one thing, it’s a whole new arena when it comes to multi-city travel. The whole idea of visiting Brussels came about at the last minute. Initially, the plan was to do just Amsterdam and Paris, or the itinerary that was ruled out, London and Paris. When I discovered that a one-way flight between Amsterdam and Paris was not as affordable, the high-speed rail option came up. Seeing the capital of the European Union sitting nicely between my two points, it was a eureka moment.

While foreigners can reserve train tickets online, strangely enough, we can’t buy it direct from the train operator’s website. We can’t take advantage of on-the-spot promotions and sales offers on SNCF’s Ouigo or TGV, Deutsche Bahn’s ICE, the Franco-Dutch’s Thalys or NTV’s Italo. Instead, we’ve to purchase from third-party sites like Eurail or RailEurope which seems to inflate rail fares. When it came down to it, and you apparently can’t know what price you’re exactly paying for until it’s actually reserved, confirmed and impossible to back out of, my combined fare came dangerously close to the SGD 300 mark – wayyy more expensive than a one-way flight from Schiphol to Charles De Gaulle. Another matter of frustration was that prior to my arrival in Brussels, my Belgian host suddenly informed me that I could only come in after 7.00pm, a startling five hours after my arrival. I had timed my departure for the pre-arranged time for “checking in”. I was mostly furious, but tried to take things in my stride.

Operator: Thalys
Service: TGH 9358
Route: Amsterdam-Centraal to Bruxelles-Midi via Rotterdam-Centraal, Antwerpen Scheduled Time of Departure: 2.19pm
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 4:08pm
Coach: 16
Seat: 23A

View to the cabin.

Amsterdam Centraal station is the nation’s main station, and the departure point for my Thalys high-speed service to Brussels. The station may look pretty, but it’s pretty much form over function, especially for the “long distance” traveler. There’s a main hallway of souvenir shops and various food stalls for purchasing ranging from French sandwiches to American pizzas, but the signs are poorly marked, there are no seats except a handful on the platform (who’d want to dwell at the platform in such chilly temperatures?), and is on the whole, not traveler friendly. In addition, the platform the train was boarding at was narrow, and by 10 minutes prior, was rather crowded.

Thalys is the brand of high-speed trains operating between Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne, and are characterized by their deep maroon cars. As a high-speed rail enthusiast, it was a thrill to ride these sets. I suppose the rush started back in 2011 when I rode China’s CRH380A series train between Shanghai Hongqiao and Hangzhou, and followed shortly by the Shanghai Transrapid maglev to Pudong Airport. I traveled high-speed again, albeit slower, between Beijing South and Tianjin on the CRH3 or commonly known as the Siemens Velaro train. There’s a certain seduction and romance about cruising on the ground at such high speeds (up to 364km/h on the CRH380A, and 431km/h on the maglev) that just can’t be put into words – the speed, and not to forget, the convenience of it all: downtown to downtown. It’s almost better than flying, really. The fact that the Thalys service between Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam was operated by Thalys PBA, which is based off Alstom’s TGV Reseau, essentially, the “face” of France’s iconic TGV high-speed trains, was as exciting as riding an aircraft model I hadn’t flown before. Korea’s KTX trains are also based on these Alstom sets.

The New York Pizza, which has no relation to the one that was formerly in Singapore, is actually really very good. I could eat this every other day for one week.

The Theory Behind

High-speed trains are trains that travel in excess of more than 250km/h, and can roughly be divided into two schools of thought, and the emphasis is on how the electric trains are powered. The first is based on the earliest steam trains: a power car called the locomotive, pulling (from the front) and pushing (from the back) the unpowered passenger cars – this is the principle behind the TGV Reseau. However, it has limitations. The faster you want your train to go, the lower the centre of gravity must be, and with the passenger cars unpowered (which means, lighter than the locomotives), the probability of derailing increases dramatically. You could add weights to keep the CG down, but the heavier the passenger cars, the harder the locomotives have to push, and this is supposed to be a high-speed train, not a fast-speed one. The second school of thought, which is by far the more popular one, is to remove the locomotive, and spread it throughout underneath the passenger cars. This way, you lower the centre of gravity of all the entire train, and less power is required to push the train to breakneck speeds. This also allows for quicker acceleration and deceleration, the latter important, in earthquake zones as it takes 25km/h for a train traveling at 300km/h to come to a complete stop. And, you can walk from one end of the train to the other.

Antwerp station.

Approaching Brussels South, or Bruxelles-Midi station.

Inside, the train mirrors its exterior, continuing the red and maroon theme, except in smooth velvet. Typical of French design, we see acrylic again.

There are some written but out-of-sight rules that you’ve to follow when riding high-speed trains in Europe. Regardless of whether the seat beside you is vacant or not, luggage has to be stowed on luggage racks located above the seat or at either ends of each car. Unless you’re carrying the smallest of aircraft cabin-sized luggage, stowing it above your seat is pretty much impossible. In my experience, stow your luggage on the racks that are hardest to place, a.k.a., the highest racks. Passengers on these trains will bring aboard bags of all sizes, and the ones with the largest will willingly “rearrange” the bags so that their bags will fit. While the train doors are opened, make sure you’re able to see the luggage racks. The possibility of pickpockets running away with your bags at this stage of the journey is high. You might be disturbing your seatmate, but I do assure you that the locals understand, and they too, do this as well. If you do nap en route, make sure that headphones, bags and whatever you have, is held tightly, or at the very least, make sure they’re so integrated that a slightest shift (of your bag or mp3 player) is immediately felt by you.

Unlike the trains in China, you never really get the sensation of speed on the Thalys because firstly, the TGV Reseau can’t safely travel faster than 300km/h. Secondly, the acceleration is slow, and we’ve many stops – with stations in Rotterdam Central and Antwerp. Also, with the power cars removed from the passenger cars, there’s no sound or indication besides the gradual wind noise.

I arrive in Brussels South station, only to find a city that’s even colder than the one I had just left.

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