The Orient Express

DISAPPOINTINGLY FOR SOME, there never was a murder on the Orient Express, but there is no doubt that Agatha Christie chose a fitting setting for her “whodunnit” mystery novel. The Orient Express was the most exciting and exotic train service in the world, crossing the whole of Europe and entering territories—particularly in the east—that were little known to western Europeans. Indeed, the service was one of the wonders of the age, and like so many railroad innovations it owed its existence to the tireless efforts of one individual, in this case Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers.

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Nagelmackers was the founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, a popular service that offered compartments instead of the open-plan cars of Pullman’s sleeping cars (see The Pullman Phenomenon). However, Nagelmackers’ real genius lay not in the trains he built but in the routes he established. He wanted a Europe sans frontières, one that travelers could cross quickly and in style in his well-appointed trains. To that end, in 1872, he created a service that ran from Ostend on the North Sea coast of his native Belgium more than 1,000 miles (1,600km) south to Brindisi on the tip of the Italian heel. The venture proved successful, and with the East and the Balkans opening up as the Ottoman Empire declined, he saw that a service linking Europe and Asia would also be profitable. And so he began work on his Orient Express—an 1,857-mile (2,989-km) passage from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul), bridging east and west and crossing six countries en route.

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Dealing with the railroads of six diverse nations was no easy task, and Nagelmackers had to use all his skills as a negotiator to solve a whole range of problems. Most importantly, he had to ensure that each country had locomotives that could haul his trains, and that the tracks were of standard gauge (see The Track Structure). Other issues included the width of the route’s tunnels, and arcane matters such as the security of wine lockers. He was also a great publicist and generated huge interest in his venture, not least because the route passed through the Balkans, an area that was still recovering from numerous wars, having struggled for independence from both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

The inaugural train, for press and VIPs, left the Gare de L’Est in Paris on the evening of October 4, 1883, and was scheduled to take three and a half days to reach Constantinople. Nagelmackers had created what The Times correspondent Henri Opper de Blowitz described as a level “of comfort and facility hitherto unknown.” There was a smoking room, a ladies’ boudoir, and a library, and each compartment (or coupé) had a miniature drawing room in the style of Louis XIV, complete with a Turkish carpet, inlaid tables, and plush red armchairs. In the evenings, the compartment walls could be folded down to reveal beautifully upholstered beds. The cabinet de toilette had a mosaic floor, and a special car at the rear of the train had cubicles for showers that were supplied with hot and cold water—certainly a railroad first. According to one account (and numerous tales were published) the piéce de résistance was the dining room:

[It] had a ceiling with embossed leather from Cordoue [Cordoba], walls lined with tapestries from the Atelier des Gobelins, founded by the Sun King, and drapes of finest Gènes [Genoa] velvet.

The tables were covered with white damask cloths and intricately folded napkins, and ice buckets filled with champagne bottles were at hand—and if the five-course meal were not enough, iceboxes full of exotic foods and cold drinks were available at the end of each car.

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Nagelmackers was a stickler for detail, and set out a series of rules to maintain high standards. Attendants had to be smart at all times and on special occasions had to dress like footmen from the time of Louis XIV, complete with blue silk breeches and buckled shoes. Even the engine crew had to dress up on occasion, often in white coats that were highly impractical in the engineer’s cab.

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That first journey was one long party. At Strasbourg, Vienna, and Budapest the train was met by brass bands and local dignitaries, while at Tsigany, in Hungary, a gypsy orchestra came aboard and serenaded the passengers all the way to the border with Romania. The only drawback was that the track was incomplete. The bridge over the Danube river was unfinished, so the crossing from Romania to Bulgaria had to be made by ferry, and even then the line only reached as far as the port of Varna, where passengers had to take a ship to Constantinople. This last section of the journey was, according to Blowitz, through a land full of “brigands” who had recently attacked one station and “garrotted the stationmaster and his subordinates in order to get hold of the money they expected in his till,” and only fled when they were disturbed by workmen. Consequently, Blowitz and his companions armed themselves with revolvers, although they never had occasion to use them. They arrived at Constantinople precisely 82 hours after their departure from Paris and were met by the Sultan, with whom Blowitz conducted a newspaper interview, the ruler’s first.

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It was another six years before it was possible to take the train all the way to Constantinople. The trip took just under three days, leaving Paris on a Wednesday at 7:30pm and arriving at 5:35pm on the Saturday in Constantinople. The service became popular, attracting a wide range of travelers as it was quicker and more convenient than traveling by ship. Subsequently, a variety of other routes were opened, running trains that bore some variant of the name “Orient Express.” Various connecting trains were also introduced, including one from London via a train ferry. Inevitably, when war broke out in 1914, the Orient Express was suspended, but as soon as the war was over in 1918 a second line was opened—the Simplon Orient Express, on which Agatha Christie’s tale is set. Using the Simplon Tunnel between Switzerland and Italy, this second line was a more southerly route via Milan, Venice, and Trieste, and soon became the more popular route from Paris to Constantinople. A third line was added in the 1930s (the heyday of the Orient services)—the Arlberg Orient Express, which ran via Zurich and Innsbruck to Budapest, with sleeper cars continuing on to Bucharest and Athens. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 again interrupted the service, although the German Mitropa company ran trains through the Balkans until Yugoslav partisans destroyed the line.

While there were no recorded murders on the Orient Express, there was at least one mysterious death—when a US agent fell from a train at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s—and there was no shortage of mischief. Sleeping car attendants were regularly called on to hire prostitutes, not just for gentlemen, but for princes and even bishops who found that a train offered more privacy than a brothel. Indeed, many men took the train simply for these services alone. There was plenty of spying, too, given that the trains linked east and west. Between the wars, “King’s Messengers”—effectively couriers for the British Foreign Office—traveled in compartments where they guarded their diplomatic bags with their lives—and later claimed that they were immune to the wiles of the beautiful young spies who were sent to entrap them, although we only have their word for that.

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For all its luxuries, however, the service did not remain exclusive for long. On the contrary, although there was only one class of car in the original service, which cost 300 Francs (the equivalent of two weeks’ average wages at the time), second and third class cars were opened for poorer people who used it for shorter, mostly domestic journeys. In these packed cars, as one writer put it, “the pulse of Old Europe beat, with its almost medieval characters: the tramp, the peddler, the gypsy-musician…” Indeed, although the service continued to operate even after the Iron Curtain divided Europe, the communist countries increasingly replaced the luxurious Wagon-Lits cars with more spartan cars run by their own railroad networks.

By 1962, the Orient Express and the Arlberg Orient Express had stopped running, leaving only the Simplon Orient Express, which was replaced by a slower service, the Direct Orient Express, which ran daily trains from Paris to Belgrade and twice-weekly services from Paris to Istanbul and Athens. The service through to Istanbul finally came to an end in 1977, killed off by the ubiquitous spread of the automobile. A service called the Orient Express stuttered on between Paris and Vienna, and between Budapest and Bucharest, but that closed with the opening of the high-speed line between Paris and Strasbourg in 2009 (a service called the Venice-Simplon Orient Express still operates between London and Venice, but it is a separate entity). By the time of its swansong in 2009, the original Orient Express was an anachronism—a relic that had perhaps done well to last as long as it did.

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