Given the fact that it”s Germany”s fourth largest city, Cologne has a suitably impressive main railway station ” Hautbahnhof ” to reflect its status.
It”s simply enormous, but even it is dwarfed by the colossal Dom Cathedral that sits next door. Cologne”s trademark icon is one of the wonders of the architectural world ” and, much in the same way that St Paul”s in London miraculously survived being pulverised in WWII, so too did the Dom emerge relatively intact despite 93% of the city around it being turned into rubble.
Access for the business traveller can be by one of Cologne”s innumerable trams or a relatively good value taxi, although road and building works around the station mean that it can take a little time to get to.
The business lounge for First Class passengers ” including those with Thalys tickets - is clearly marked out just inside the station entrance and is up one level from the main concourse. It is a fairly spartan affair, with comfortable enough leather seats and self-service tea and coffee, although no snacks were on view. Computer terminals are available as are complementary newspapers, but no announcements are made regarding train departures, even international ones.
Boarding the Thalys TGV, seating is laid out in classic business rail configuration, while a complementary meal is very rapidly served, although no menu or information on what was available and at what frequency, was given.
The ” cold - food is however, of a good standard but as quickly as it is served, it is also removed. The Cologne-Paris sector passes via Brussels, so as there is a good 2h20mins, why the rush?
On this particular service, the tray on the single seat angled down, making balancing a laptop and food a perilous experience. The single seats facing each other have a much bigger ” and flatter ” table.
It has to be said that progress from Cologne to Liege - another stop ” is at best meandering. Traversing the Ardennes ” although extremely pretty - takes a good deal of time and a very full train can make concentrating on work a difficult affair.
Once past Liege however, the Thalys TGV really starts to stretch its legs and for anyone not used to the dizzying speed, it makes for an extraordinary sensation as pylons and bridges fly past the window in an unending blur.
There is around a ten minute wait at Brussels ” clearly a major interchange for UK passengers bound for home on Eurostar ” while new provisions are loaded and a fresh crew embarks.
The now-defunct Sabena used to operate the Brussels-Paris service, but with a Thalys journey time of 1h25min, this clearly and quickly became redundant, much as the London Gatwick-Paris route became unviable once Eurostar established itself. For a one-off special, Ryanair will operate a Gatwick- Beauvais service - a considerable distance from Paris - for the Rugby World Cup departing 14 September and returning the next day.
Staff are again, quickly through the carriage, this time offering a series of high quality snacks, ham or cheese rolls, fruit and drinks and all served with great politeness and charm. There”s no dawdling on this route however, as the TGV takes advantage of the great flat plains of northern France to hurtle towards Paris.
Whether or not it makes sense to let the train take the strain as the old British Rail used to claim is a moot point in Europe. It is hardly practical or social to ban conversation entirely, but if the carriage is bursting full, it can be difficult to concentrate, even in the relatively relaxed layout of business class. If in a single seat, it can feel a little cramped and although power is provided, it needs a decent-sized table to enable work to be carried out efficiently.
Cologne-Paris by train isn”t really all that quick either. At just under four hours, it may be the aircraft ” at around 1h flying time ” might just have the edge. If there was a way to speed up the Belgian sector, Thalys could well challenge the airlines as the sectors in which it is quick, are startlingly quick, but 2hr20 to reach Brussels is a tad on the slow side. Brussels-Paris however, is a no-brainer ” the shiny Thalys wins hands down.