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Christie Papers | A History of the Orient Express

From Agatha Christie’s  official information and community website here is the story of the Orient-Express.

The history of the Orient Express train itself is almost as full of twists and subtleties as Christie’s famous novel …

The train began life in 1883 as the Express d’Orient, a luxurious train service between Paris and Constantinople. More than a century later, Georges Nagelmackers’ vision survives in the form of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, a privately operated train of renovated carriages aboard which you can experience the same route, cuisine and glamour enjoyed by wealthy passengers in the early 1900s.

The name Orient Express means different things to different people. It’s a particular engine and set of carriages, the original route between Paris and Constantinople and to travel in style. In fact, it’s all of these. As authentic as the modern day Venice Simplon-Orient-Express seems, it is not the only “Orient-Express” in existence and the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express licences its name, from SNCF (French railways), the trademark owners.

Passengers of the less than glamorous Austrian Railways EuroNight train number ‘469 Orient-Express’ between Strasbourg and Vienna would be forgiven for not realising that on December 12th 2009 they were travelling on the last ever Orient-Express ever. This date marked the moment that the real Orient-Express, the direct descendent of Nagelmackers’ glorious maiden voyage 126 years before, disappeared from the European timetables forever. It really was the end of the line, at least for this, the public service.

Today there’s also a lesser known rival to the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the Nostalgic Orient-Express that runs between Zurich and Istanbul. It too has a number of original carriages offering luxury train travel for those that can afford it, though you’ll be fortunate to find tickets since it has fallen into new ownership in Russia where it’s currently undergoing renovation.

While the name of the train has remained constant, the route has evolved over time. Technical innovation, customer demand and war have brought changes since the initial journey in 1883. That only went so far as Giurgiu, Romania, where passengers transferred to a ferry over the Danube, onto a standard train to the Black Sea, then finally onto an overnight ship to Constantinople. By the new century, new tracks via Budapest made for a single three-night train journey.

The years before the First World War were the heyday for the original Orient-Express, carrying VIPs and royalty through eighteenth century kingdoms, aboard the finest carriages of the day. And for the Simplon-Orient-Express, the years after WW1 were the heyday. The completion of the Simplon Tunnel expansion under the Alps in 1921 offered an alternative, faster route. By the 1930s, the Simplon-Orient-Express existed alongside the original Orient-Express, the Oostende-Vienna Orient Express and the Arlberg Orient-Express, their carriages would combine wherever the routes intersected, pulled by various operators’ locomotives. Nagelmackers’ company Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (The International Sleeping-Car Company) operated all the Orient-Express routes.

With European tourism back in vogue as an upper class leisure pursuit between the wars, the Orient-Express routes catered for these exclusive passengers’ every whim. This was the period in which the Orient-Express’ reputation achieved immortality when it featured in two literary novels, Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (for the record, Murder on the Orient Express was set on the Simplon Orient-Express). The Orient-Express also found fame when carriage 2419 was used by the Allies as the venue for Germany to sign the Armistice to end the First World War. Hitler used the same carriage for the French’s surrender in 1940, then later destroyed it. The Orient-Express continued to operate after the Second World War through the newly divided Europe in less luxurious incarnations, but gone were the glory days of charging at speed from West to East.

It may not be the original service, but without the intervention in 1977 by James B. Sherwood who obtained a number of original carriages at a Sotheby’s auction in Monte Carlo, the Orient-Express that exists in most people’s minds would never have survived the century. In 1982, after extensive renovation he launched the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, running from London and Paris to Venice and once a year to Istanbul.

The route may have changed and the carriages may have aged but the concept of travelling in style has obviously proved extremely popular – but if you can’t afford the train ticket, you can read the novel, and Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express offers a glimpse of the glamour and luxury without the need to leave your armchair.

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