The Orient Express is arguably the most famous train line in the Western world, operating for over 80 years from 1883 to 1977. A fortunate enough passenger could travel 2,740 kilometres in utter luxury from Paris to Istanbul, with multiple stops across the European continent.
The train has been featured in books (most infamously in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express), as well as countless movies and TV shows. A playground for the European elite, the Orient Express has a rich history throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Here is a short visual history of the Orient Express, from its origins to its eventual demise and rebirth.
The mastermind behind the Orient Express was the Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers. He became aware of sleeping cars when he was in the USA and decided to bring this concept to Europe. In 1876 he founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (International Sleeping Car Company). The trains quickly gained a reputation for being the pinnacle of luxury travel, with marvellous decorations and world-class service.
The Orient Express made its inaugural run in 1883, going from Paris to the Bulgarian town of Varna. Steamships carried the passengers from the Black Sea coast to the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople (now known as Istanbul). By 1889, the whole journey was being conducted by train.
Like Georges Nagelmacker’s other trains, the Orient Express was meant to provide its passengers with the highest levels of luxury. The interiors were decorated with fine rugs, velvet curtains, mahogany panelling and ornate furniture. The restaurant provided travellers with world-class cuisine, while the sleeping quarters were unmatched in comfort.
In the 20th century
The train line was a great success, but its service came to a halt in 1914 due to the start of World War One. It quickly resumed its operations in 1919, with a slightly altered course, starting from Calais, and passing through Paris, Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Zagreb and Sofia before arriving in Istanbul. The reason for this change was the aim of avoiding Germany, whom the Entente did not trust following World War One.
The fictional detective Hercule Poirot travelled on the Orient Express’ alternative route, which avoided Germany, in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The line was known as the Simplon Orient Express. The murder in the book took place between Vinkovci and Brod in modern-day Croatia.
World War Two provided another obstacle to the train line. Operations were closed from 1939 to 1947, before resuming business for the next 30 years. The emergence of the Iron Curtain across Europe created an insurmountable obstacle for the Orient Express. Travellers from the Western bloc found it often difficult to get into the Eastern bloc and vice versa. By the 1970s the train line had lost much of its former glory and lustre. The Orient Express was finally discontinued in 1977 due to dwindling passenger numbers.
In 1982, the American entrepreneur James Sherwood recreated the Orient Express experience by launching his Venice Simplon Orient Express service. For his endeavour, he bought classic train coaches at auctions, utilising them in his new train line. Originally running from London and Paris to Venice, it eventually ran the original distance to Istanbul. The service is operational to this very day.