Earlier this year, I traveled between Midi station in Brussels, Belgium and Gare du Nord in Paris, France. The train was operated by Thalys, a high-speed rail operator serving 26 stations in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. The total transit time was 1 hour, 22 minutes. The train’s peak speed was 186 mph, or 300 kmh. Fast!
One of the primary benefits of European rail for wheelchair users is the fact that trains operate from city center to city center. Air travel requires commuting to/from the airports, which can be costly and time consuming.
On July 25, I took Thalys train, #9484. Here, I will review that experience and offer tips to make your travels in a wheelchair less stressful.
Please note that Belgium and France are both within the Schengen Area, which permits travel by rail without the need for security or passport control. There are open borders within the Schengen Area. Several countries have opted-out, including the United Kingdom.
Booking and Requesting Wheelchair Assistance
I made a standard booking at the ticket counter in the Brussels-Midi train station, about 5 hours in advance. The ticketing agent was able to sell me a wheelchair seating location, but could not request wheelchair assistance until 1 hour prior to departure. I was asked to return at that time, or to make the call myself. I chose the former. The effective rate for the train I desired was approximately €65. Because wheelchair seating is pulled from different inventory, my fare was €21. Quite a discount! This was for a seat in the Comfort 1 class cabin. This is the premier cabin onboard. Wheelchair passengers are automatically booked into Comfort 1, for no additional fee.
At the station
I reported to the ticket counter at Brussels-Midi station one hour prior to departure. The agent at the desk called to request the wheelchair assistance and asked me to return in 30 minutes. When I returned, the assistance staff were already there waiting for me. They did not speak English, but were able to direct me to the proper platform.
When the train pulled into the station, the two gentlemen helping me set up the boarding ramp and I was able to roll into the train car without additional assistance.
Earlier in the day, extreme weather had halted departures from Amsterdam, and my train was extremely overcrowded. When I entered the train car, passengers were standing in the aisle and a mountain of bags was occupying my wheelchair seating area. The train had already started to roll out of the station, so I was forced to deal with the difficult task of asking passengers to remove their bags myself. One particular lady was extremely rude. Within 5 minutes, though, I was able to squeeze my wheelchair into my reserved space.
On the train
The train would have been easily accessible were it no so crowded due to the weather. My car featured space for a single wheelchair. I was the only wheelchair passenger onboard. Although I wasn’t able to fully utilize my space because of other passengers’ bags, I was able to snap a photo once the car had cleared out on arrival to Paris:
The space is certainly sufficient to accommodate even large power wheelchairs. The space features a tray table that can be folded out across your wheelchair and lap. There is a fold-down/fold-up seat that the wheelchair user can transfer into. I was not able to make use of this seat, or the tray table, due to the belongings of other passengers’ encroaching into my area.
The Comfort 1 class includes a snack or meal, delivered directly to your seat. It was tasty. I enjoyed a can of Leffe, a Belgian beer, with my chicken entree. A salad option was also available, as were sodas and wine. After my meal, I accepted a glass of still water.
Prior to arrival, the Thalys staff serving our cabin passed through with taxi request forms. These forms allow passengers to request a taxi prior to arrival. Upon arrival to Paris, a taxi will be waiting for the passenger. I took advantage of this service onboard, and was told that the request for a wheelchair accessible taxi would be placed, but could not be guaranteed.
On arrival into the Paris Gare du Nord station, I was made to wait for nearly an hour onboard the train. My request for wheelchair assistance had apparently fallen through the cracks due to the weather delays and cancelations earlier in the day. Because I was on one of the last trains into the station, it took a significant amount of time to locate individuals trained to operate the wheelchair ramp. Once I was off the train, I went to the information desk, where the staff assisted me in securing a taxi. This took about 30 minutes to arrange, largely because the staff were trying to make contact with the taxi driver who had originally responded to my reservation made onboard the train.
The taxi finally arrived, and transported me to my hotel, the Paris Marriott Champs-Elysées. While my arrival into Paris was not pleasant, I understand that the failure was a result of a chaotic weather disruption. Despite my frustration, I would not hesitate to travel again with Thalys in the future.
For more information, or to book rail travel in Europe, visit RailEurope.