The final piece of the TGV Nord-Europe jigsaw was slotted into place on December 10 when an inaugural Royal Thalys carried King Albert II and Queen Paola from Brussels to Paris and back to mark completion of the 71 km Belgian section of the 314·6 km high speed route. Murray Hughes was on board

'TODAY, FOR THE FIRST time in the history of international rail transport ... two capitals are directly linked by services running at 300 km/h from end to end. We are very proud of this historic fact.' Etienne Schouppe, Chief Managing Director of Belgian National Railways, was addressing guests at Brussels Midi station before departure of the Royal Thalys special train to Paris on December 10.

Up on the platform, heavy rain and leaden skies seemed inauspicious omens for a royal launch as the final preparations were made. Quietly and without fuss, the first of three Thalys PBKA four-voltage sets slid out of one of the dedicated Thalys platforms to act as 'sweeper' ahead of the royal train waiting opposite. Camera crews jostled for position round the red nose of Thalys PBKA set 4303 as they sought to capture on film the black, red and yellow national flag. Other media crowded on a podium next to the car bearing the Royal crest below the door window.

Minutes later the royal couple walked along the obligatory red carpet, chatted briefly with the waiting train crew, and boarded. Officials hurried the other guests into the meticulously turned-out set.

Departure of Train 09386 at 10.33 was 8min later than scheduled, but by 10.46 the special was on the freshly built high speed line beyond Lembeek. Driver Walgraef at once opened up, and at 10.48 an SNCB official announced that the train had reached 300 km/h. Back in Brussels, and unnoticed by the press, a reserve Thalys unit set out for Paris.

Sound barriers briefly obscured the view as the train sped towards France, but when the sodden landscape reappeared there were only leafless poplars and heaps of sugar beet to break up the plain. Staff at the lineside in yellow high-visibility jackets offered a flash of colour against the monochrome background.

On board, hostesses in mauve Thalys uniforms began serving champagne and canapés at 10.50, coming into unfortunate conflict with prowling TV crews.

A rock-steady ride belied the rate of progress, and attempts to detect the transition from Belgian to French track proved fruitless. There was a brief glimpse of the Fretin triangle outside Lille, and at 11.06 a Eurostar passing to a backdrop of the distinctive slagheap at Hénin-Beaumont confirmed we were well inside France. Set 4303 streaked through the mist and rain towards Paris.

French pageantry

Gare du Nord was filled with sound and colour. The Royal couple arrived to a red carpet welcome with a guard of honour; military bands played the Belgian and French national anthems.

While protocol and officialdom dominated the proceedings, there were other questions to be asked. The train had made up all 8min of the late start, and journey time from Brussels Midi was just 78min and 46sec. Enquiries to the traction inspector in the cab about the maximum speed attained prompted the response 'strictly no more than 300 km/h', but the driver's grin and twinkling eyes told a different story.

The royals were whisked off for lunch at the Elysée, and other mortals were bussed, with police escort, to a venue on the other side of Paris. Return to the Gare du Nord was by the same method, much to the anxiety of a very senior officer of French National Railways who was heard to remark to his Belgian counterpart that he was getting SNCF a bad name among Parisians for holding up the traffic.

Arrival back at Nord found set 4303 turned so that the Royal couple could again travel in a specially turned out car near the front of the train. The 'sweeper' left at 15.50, followed by the Royal special at 15.58.

The graffiti-covered walls of the Paris suburbs were soon lost to view, and by 16.20 the clouds were breaking to reveal shafts of sunlight and glimpses of pale blue over the gently rolling countryside. The train's long shadow appeared briefly in the lineside fields as Thalys staff served juice, coffee and patisseries. Cars and lorries on the crowded autoroute du nord parallel to the TGV line appeared at a standstill as we swept past in the gathering twilight.

At 17.05 the brakes squealed for the approach to Brussels, and piped music stirred those who had dozed off after their midday feasting.

The Brussels Eurostar terminal appeared brightly lit out of the gloom as the Thalys set drew up in Midi station, but in contrast to those journeying from London, no passport or other checks awaited those who had left Paris just 78min earlier.

  • CAPTION: Flag-bedecked Thalys PBKA set 4303 after arrival at Paris Gare du Nord on December 10
  • CAPTION: His Majesty King Albert II (right) and Queen Paola wait to board. Belgium's Royal crest adorned the entrance to the Royal coach (inset)
  • CAPTION: President of French National Railways Louis Gallois (right) confers briefly with Chief Managing Director of Belgian National Railways Etienne Schouppe before the Royal Thalys returned to Brussels

Le Thalys royal inaugure la dernière liaison du TGV Nord Europe

Le roi Albert II et la reine Paola de Belgique ont ouvert officiellement la section belge de la ligne à grande vitesse Paris - Bruxelles le 10 décembre lorsqu'ils ont fait le trajet entre les deux capitales en 1h 18minutes dans un train Thalys royal spécial. Les services réguliers sont passés sur la nouvelle ligne en Belgique le 14 décembre, réduisant la durée du trajet entre Paris - Bruxelles, Paris - Cologne et Londres - Bruxelles. Les cinq sociétés de chemins de fer impliquées prévoient une solide croissance du trafic au fur et à mesure que les voyageurs profiteront de la première ligne à grande vitesse internationale

Königlicher Thalys eröffnet letzte Verbindung von TGV Nord Europe

Am 10. Dezember wurde der belgische Abschnitt der Hochgeschwindigkeitsstrecke zwischen Paris und Brüssel offiziell von König Albert II und Königin Paola von Belgien auf einer Reise in einem königlichen Thalys-Sonderzug zwischen den beiden Hauptstädten eröffnet, die 1Stunde und 18Minuten dauerte. Der fahrplanmä§ige Verkehr ging vom 14. Dezember an zur neuen Strecke in Belgien über und verkürzt die Reisezeiten zwischen Paris - Brüssel, Paris - Köln und London - Brüssel. Die fünf beteiligten Eisenbahnen sagen eine starke Verkehrszunahme voraus, wenn Reisende die Vorteile der ersten internationalen Hochgeschwindigkeitsstrecke in Europa nutzen

Royal Thalys inaugura el enlace final en el TGV Nord Europe

El Rey Alberto II y la Reina Paola de Bélgica abrieron formalmente la sección belga de la línea de alta velocidad París - Bruselas en 10 de diciembre cuando viajaron en un tren Royal Thalys especial entre las dos capitales en 1hora y 18minutos. Los servicios regulares cambiar? n a la nueva línea belga desde el 14 de diciembre, recortando la duración del viaje entre París - Bruselas, París - Colonia y Londres - Bruselas. Se prevé que los cinco ferrocarriles participantes disfruten de un gran crecimiento del tr? fico desde el momento en el que los pasajeros aprovechen la primera línea de alta velocidad internacional de Europa