The Orient Express

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Europe’s Legendary Passenger Train

One of the most famous trains in the world, the Orient Express has become renowned as one of the world’s great passenger trains.

Operated by the Compagnie International des Wagon Lit, the Orient Express began as just another long-distance, international passenger train between Paris, France and Istanbul, Turkey. Over time, the train became synonymous with luxury and set the standard for passenger trains world-wide well into the 20th Century.

The Origins of the Orient Expresss

The inaugural run of the Express d’Orient left Paris’s Gare de l’Est on June 5, 1883. The train’s route took it to Germany, Austria and Bulgaria before arriving in Istanbul..(Burton, Anthony.The Orient Express. Chartwell Books.2001.pgs.18-21)

In 1885, a second route was introduced, this time offering service via Vienna, Belgrade and Plovdiv. From there passengers could sail to Istanbul. The Orient Express made its first non-stop run from Paris to Istanbul on June 1, 1889. Istanbul remained the train’s eastern terminus until 1977. The following year, the train’s name was officially changed from Express d’Orient to the Orient Express.(Burton.pgs.23-25)

Operations were suspended during World War I. When the train began to run again, in 1918, the completion of the Simplon Tunnel a year later allowed for the introduction of a southern route, by way of Milan.(Burton. Pgs.62-65)

Despite the Great Depression, the 1930s represented the zenith of the Orient Express’ popularity with three different routes being offered.

  • The Orient Express ran from Paris to Istanbul.
  • The Simplon Orient Express ran from Paris to Istanbul, by way of Milan, Venice and Belgrade.
  • The Arlberg Orient Express offered overnight service between London, Bucharest and Athens via Zurich and Innsbruck.(Burton. pgs.75-89)

The Decline of the Orient Express

As with World War I, the Orient Express was forced to cease operations during World War II. The Nazis made an attempt to offer the service in the Balkans, but were forced to abandon their efforts due to partisan sabotage of tracks and equipment.(Burton. pgs.91-93)

The Orient Express was put back into service following the war, but things were not the same. With the uncertainty that accompanied the Cold War, access to some of the train’s East European stops was limited or cut-off altogether. The governments of the Warsaw Pact countries also began to replace the cars of the Orient Express with rolling stock from their own fleets. On top of this, the jet age had finally arrived. Not even its legendary luxury and five-star cuisine could compete with the speed and efficiency a jet airplane.(Burton.pgs.94-97)

By the 1960s, both the Orient Express and the Arlberg Orient Express had been taken out of service. Only the Simplon Orient Express remained in service, renamed as the Direct Orient Express. However, as ridership continued to drop that train was also on borrowed time. The Orient Express made its last run from Paris to Istanbul in May, 1977. For many train enthusiasts it was the end of an era of opulence. (Burton.pgs.98-101)

The Orient Express continued to operate, but saw a gradual reductions in the length of its route over the last three decades of the 20th Century. Today, the Orient Express is still in service, but only operates between Strasbourg and Vienna. The completion of a high-speed rail link between Strasbourg and Paris has turned the train into a shadow of its former glory.(Hidden Europe Magazine)

The Legacy of the Orient Express

The Orient Express has also fired the imaginations of numerous filmmakers and authors over the years. From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love, the Orient Express has come to exude and personify luxury, adventure, danger and mystery.

With its real world reputation for unparalleled luxury and its ability to inspire the imagination, the Orient Express is truly one of the world’s great rail journeys.

The copyright of the article The Orient Express in Rail History is owned by Terry Long. Permission to republish The Orient Express in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.
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