The Orient Express at Calais

An LX-series sleeping-car, built in 1929 for the Wagons-Lits Company, now restored for the Venice Simplon Orient Express.  Is this the real Orient Express?

On this page...

  The end of the Orient Express, 12 December 2009...

  The Orient Express until 2009 - the real Orient Express, Paris to Vienna.

  A few other things you didn't know about the Orient Express...

  The Orient Express in its heyday - what was it really like?

  A history of the Orient Express from 1883 to 2009

  Books about the Orient Express

On other pages...

  The Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) vintage luxury train from London to Venice.

The end of the Orient Express:  12 December 2009...

On 12 December 2009, EuroNight train number 469 Orient Express left Strasbourg on its final overnight run to Vienna, and on 13 December the celebrated name Orient Express disappeared forever from the official European timetables after 126 years.  True, the Orient Express may have been the ultimate example of a knife that's had its blade and its handle replaced many times, but this train was indeed the true descendant of that first 1883 Express d'Orient and it officially carried the name Orient Express.  You can trace its evolution from timetable to timetable, year to year from 1883 to 2009.  On its last run, the Orient Express had evolved into an Austrian Railways (BB) EuroNight train, with one Austrian Railways air-conditioned sleeping-car (1 & 2 bed compartments, including two deluxe compartments with toilet and shower), two modern air-conditioned couchette cars with 4 & 6 berth compartments, and an Austrian seats car.  The Orient Express was cut back to start in Strasbourg rather than Paris in June 2007 when the Paris-Strasbourg high-speed TGV line opened, so that it could no longer be attached to a French domestic train between Paris & Strasbourg.  Although a TGV connection from Paris was provided, the writing was on the wall for this train when it stopped directly linking the French and Austrian capitals.  It had lost its Paris-Budapest Hungarian couchette car and Paris-Bucharest Romanian sleeping-car in June 2001, and it hadn't carried any through cars for Istanbul since the 1960s.

You might now be a bit confused...

...because you thought that the Orient Express was a special luxury train, and that it originally stopped running in 1977, was then beautifully restored and put back into service and runs from London & Paris to Venice and costs a fortune to travel on and people like Alan Whicker & Terry Wogan travel on it and do TV programmes about it...  The train you're probably thinking of is the privately-run Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE), which uses vintage restored sleeping-cars & dining-cars and costs around 1,800 per person between London & Venice.  Wonderful though the VSOE is (and you'll find more information about the VSOE here) it is certainly not the 'original' Orient Express (as there's no such thing) or the 'real' Orient Express (that's the train referred to above, withdrawn on 12 December 2009).  This page attempts to clear up some myths, put the Orient Express in context, and explain what the Orient Express really was.

Destination board on the door of the Orient Express from Strasbourg to Vienna   The Orient Express to Vienna about to leave Strasbourg, 2009

The destination board on the final (2009) incarnation of the Orient ExpressPhoto courtesy of Olivier Pierard

 

The Orient Express about to leave Strasbourg for Vienna in summer 2009.  It's ended its days as an Austrian Railways sleeper train. Photo courtesy of Olivier Pierard.

Yes, the (real) Orient Express continued to run until 12 December 2009...

The Orient Express referred to here and shown in these photographs was the real Orient Express, the actual true descendant of that first Express d'Orient that left Paris in October 1883.  It was a normal scheduled EuroNight express, run by the Austrian national railways (BB), and you could travel on it with normal tickets including InterRail and Eurail passes.  Until 8 June 2007 it left Paris every evening at 17:16 and arrived in Vienna at 08:30 next morning.  From June 2007 onwards you needed to leave Paris around 17:54 by high-speed TGV train to connect with the Orient Express at Strasbourg.  The Orient Express left Strasbourg at 20:37 and arrived in Vienna at 06:40 next morning.  You can still travel from Paris to Vienna or Budapest by train today, see here.  You can trace the history of the train pictured above from one year's railway timetable to the next all the way from 1883 to 2009, so the pedigree of this train is quite genuine - more so than either of the two expensive tourist trains of restored vintage rolling stock claiming to be the Orient Express (the Venice Simplon Orient Express and the Nostalgic Orient Express), beautiful though they are.

The photographs above show the real Orient Express about to leave Strasbourg for Vienna in summer 2009.  The photos below date from around 2005 and show the Orient Express before being cut back to Strasbourg, about to leave Paris Gare de l'Est.  The gentleman is boarding the Paris-Vienna sleeping-car, which was staffed by personnel of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), the company that operated the original Orient Express from its inception.  However, since 1971 the Wagon-Lits Company has simply staffed the sleeping-car as a contractor instead of owning and operating the sleeping-car in their own right - they provide the attendant, the room service catering, bed linen, etc. for all OBB's sleeping-cars.  The coach to the right marked liegewagen is one of the two modern Austrian Railways couchette cars, also as it happen staffed by the CIWL.  The right-hand photo is a close-up of the destination label, clearly announcing the train as the EuroNight train Orient Express.

I have used the Orient Express on many occasions over the years, including a journey from Vienna to Paris on my return from Petra, Damascus, Aleppo, and (appropriately enough) Istanbul in September 2005.

The Orient Express about to leave Paris for Vienna in 2005...

  Orient Express destination board

The Orient Express about to leave Paris for Vienna circa 2005, before being cut back to start in Strasbourg.  The car on the left is the sleeping-car, older than the one used on the Orient Express now, with carpeted 1, 2 & 3-bed rooms with washbasin.  The car on the right is one of two modern couchette cars with more basic 4- & 6-bunk compartments.


A few other things you didn't know about the Orient Express...

 


 

Simplon Orient Express 1939

Below:  This is the summer 1939 timetable for the Simplon Orient Express.  At this period, the train consists exclusively of Wagons-Lits sleeping cars.  Note that the departure time for London is just the time of the train+ferry connection - the Simplon Orient Express starts in Calais.  The Taurus Express is a separate connecting train - see the Syria page.

Reproduced with kind permission from the 1939 edition of the Thomas Cook Continental Timetable,  Thomas Cook

  Simplon Orient Express timetable, 1939
   

The Orient Express in its heyday - What was it really like?

This might give you an idea of what travelling on the Orient Express was like in its heyday.

Departure from Istanbul...

Imagine it is the mid-1930s, and you are in Istanbul.  You dine at the Pera Palas Hotel, the hotel established by the Wagons-Lits Company in 1894 specifically to cater for Orient Express clientele, and still a great hotel today.  About 9pm, you head down to Sirkeci station for the 22:00 departure of the Orient Express.  You need to eat beforehand, because there is no restaurant car attached to the Orient Express when it leaves Istanbul - this isn't attached until Kapikule on the Turkish/Bulgarian border, in time to serve breakfast.

At Sirkeci station, under the station lights, you catch you first glimpse of the blue and gold sleeping-cars of the Orient Express.  It's a very short train - Just four sleeping-cars, with a baggage van (fourgon in French) at either end.  The train isn't so much a train as a collection of through sleeping cars, made up as follows:

On board the Orient Express sleeping-cars...

Each S-type sleeping-car has 10 wood-panelled compartments with either one or two beds (one above the other) plus a washbasin - there are no baths or showers on board.  The sleeper compartments convert for daytime use into a compact carpeted sitting room with sofa and small table.  There is no lounge car or seats car, at least not this side of Trieste.  Agatha Christie needed a 'pullman' salon car for dramatic purposes in 'Murder on the Orient Express', so uses some dramatic licence and writes one into her story.  Very wealthy passengers travelling alone might pay for sole occupancy of a 2-bed compartment, but other passengers would share a compartment with another passenger of the same sex.

Shunting around at Belgrade...

At Belgrade the following day, the sleepers bound for Berlin or Prague and Oostende or Paris Gare de l'Est are detached and shunted on to a train for Budapest.  Meanwhile, the Istanbul-Paris and Istanbul-Paris-Calais sleeping-cars of the 'Simplon Orient Express' (plus one of the baggage vans) are attached to an Athens-Paris and an Athens-Paris-Calais sleeping-car that have arrived in Belgrade from Greece a little earlier.  Hercule Poirot's situation will now be clear to aficionados of 'Murder on the Orient Express' - he is travelling to London, so needs to reach Calais.  However, he is unable to get a berth in the Istanbul-Calais sleeper of the Simplon Orient Express 'because the whole world travels tonight...'.  Instead, he takes a spare berth in the SOE's Istanbul-Paris sleeper, but it is '...for one night only...' as he will transfer to a spare berth in the Athens-Calais sleeper when it is attached at Belgrade.  Agatha Christie knew her trains..!

The Simplon Orient Express gains some more cars along the way - for example, another sleeping-car (a luxurious 'LX' type) for Calais is added at Trieste.  Locomotives are changed at every frontier where one national railway system hands over to another, and also at other places in between - for example, Milan Centrale is a terminus, so the train reverses there and gets a fresh locomotive on the other end.

Arrival in Paris

At Paris Gare de Lyon, three nights out of Istanbul, the Simplon Orient Express terminates.  The through sleepers to Calais are shunted around the Paris 'ceinture' (literally 'belt' line) from the Gare de Lyon to the Gare du Nord, where they are attached to a train for Calais.

All change at Calais for the London connection...

No, the sleeping cars aren't loaded onto the ferry at Calais!  The only passenger coaches ever to be physically ferried across the Channel were the London-Paris (and for a while, London-Brussels) sleeping cars of the Night Ferry, which started in 1936, was suspended a few years later for World War II, then ran after the war until withdrawal in 1980.  Orient Express passengers for London have to leave their sleeping-cars at Calais Maritime and board a ferry for Dover.  At Dover, a British Southern Railway 'boat train' is waiting to take them non-stop to London Victoria.

Orient Express, Arlberg Orient Express...

Incidentally, you can see that in the 1930s the Orient Express itself (as opposed to the Simplon Orient Express) ran three times a week from Paris Gare de l'Est - Munich - Vienna - Budapest - Belgrade - Istanbul.  It also conveyed a Paris - Budapest - Bucharest sleeper, and a Calais - Budapest - Bucharest sleeper.  On three days of the week when it wasn't running, its departure slot from the Gare de l'Est was taken up by the Arlberg Orient Express, which took a Southerly route through Switzerland (via Basel and Innsbruck) to reach Vienna.  It also had Paris - Vienna - Budapest - Bucharest and Calais-Bucharest sleepers, maintaining an almost daily Wagons-Lits service between these cities.  You can begin to see how the network fitted together...


 

Direct Orient Express, 1965...

Below:  The 1965 timetable for the Direct Orient Express, which replaced the Simplon Orient Express in 1962.  You can see from the long list of through cars that this train isn't a whole train running from A to B either, but an assortment of through carriages between different points.  You can see that it now includes ordinary seats cars (the carriage symbol) and couchettes ('CC') as well as sleeping-cars (the bed symbol).  Note that the departure time shown against London is the departure time of a train+ferry connection.  The actual Direct Orient Express starts in Paris with a few through cars from Calais.

Reproduced with kind permission from the 1965 edition of the Thomas Cook Continental Timetable,  Thomas Cook.

  Direct Orient Express timetable, 1965
   

A chronology of the Orient Express...


The Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE)...

These days, the train which most people mean when they talk about the Orient Express is the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE).  The Venice Simplon Orient Express is a privately-run train (in fact, two trains, one on  each side of the Channel) of restored 1920s, 30s, & 50s coaches, providing a once-a-week service London-Paris-Venice between March and November.  The complete London-Venice journey costs around 1,920 per person one way, including meals.  Its official website is www.orient-expresstrains.com.

For more information, see the Venice Simplon Orient Express page.


Books about the Orient Express...

'The Orient Express' - buy online at Amazon.co.uk'The Venice Simplon Orient Express' - buy online at Amazon.co.ukClick the pictures to buy these books online at Amazon.  The book on the far left has more about the history of the Orient Express, the book on the right concentrates on the restored Venice Simplon Orient Express.  The red book is a reprint of the 1913 Bradshaw's timetable - showing the Orient Express!

Also recommended is 'The Orient Express - The life and times of the world's most famous train' by E H Cookridge.  Although out of print, you can buy it second hand through Amazon - click here for details.

 

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene - click to buy onlineMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie - click to buyDVD - Murder on the Orient Express.  Click to buy online.The Orient Express also features heavily in fiction...  

Murder on the Orient Express (book)

Murder on the Orient Express (DVD)

Stamboul Train by Graham Greene (book)

 


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