At the 1986 annual conference of the Ministers of Transport for France, Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands, a high-speed network between Paris – Brussels - Cologne/Amsterdam, or PBKAL for short (the first letters of each connected city) was discussed for the first time. The L referred to London, which would also be connected to this network via the Channel Tunnel.
A year later, the French government decided to build the high-speed line (HSL) from Paris to the Channel Tunnel/Belgian border. In November 1989, the four Ministers reached an agreement on the high-speed network in The Hague. Belgium gave it the green light in 1990. By then, construction of the fifty-kilometre-long railway tunnel beneath the Channel was already in full swing.
In Belgium, the construction of high-speed lines was controversial. ‘Totally unnecessary, harmful to the environment, paying through the nose, elitist...’ That was the spirit of popular opinion on the HST. In 1986, the Minister of Transport, Herman De Croo, had presented a plan by several railway engineers. The high-speed train would run straight through Belgium from the border, only stopping in Brussels and possibly Zaventem. A ‘triangle’ was planned for the HST to The Netherlands and Germany. A resistance to this ‘monster’ was threatening in the Campine region, while Wallonia was unwilling to countenance Liège being left out of the HST.
Yet again, a compromise was reached. In Flanders, with the exception of the Antwerp - Dutch border section, no high-speed train lines would be constructed. However, lines would be adapted in a manner that benefited both the domestic and high-speed trains. But the works had to begin at the same time in both the north and the south. This simultaneous construction was part of Wallonia's intention to make sure the HSL between Leuven and Liège would not be put on the back burner.
In 1993, the LGV-Nord was completed in France, followed in early June 1996 by the HSL to the Channel Tunnel and the connection of the LGV-Nord to the Belgian railway network in Antoing.
In Belgium, the first HSL between Lembeek and the French border (72km) was inaugurated amid celebrations on December 14, 1997. On December 15, 2002, the HSL Leuven - Liège (63km) entered service, on June 12, 2009 the Chênée - Walhorn section with the 6.5 km-long Soumagne Tunnel, and on December 13, 2009 the HSL between Antwerp and the Dutch border, a route stretching somewhat more than 35 kilometres.
In sixteen years, Belgium had become the first country in Europe to achieve a complete HSL network, suitable for speeds of 300 kilometres per hour. The investment ran to well over five billion euros - the highest since the World Expo in 1958. The money was spent not only on high-speed lines, but also on the 3.8 km-long underground North-South link in Antwerp and on the Brussels-Midi, Antwerpen-Centraal and Liège-Guillemins stations.
The high-speed train that departs and arrives in the heart of the city, turned out to be a masterstroke. On the Brussels - Paris route, the Thalys left air transport in the dust. The Eurostar connects Brussels to London in two hours. Domestic railways also saw their customer base rising steadily since 1995, thanks to the expansion of services and the investments in infrastructure and comfortable double-decker trains.