The long-distance passenger train, the Orient Express, is a name associated with luxury travel, intrigue and opulence – largely thanks to being featured in one of legendary author Agatha Christie’s most famous crime novels, Murder on the Orient Express.
The original Orient Express was created in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, providing a long-distance passenger service. It had several routes, although the two cities most commonly associated with the train are Constantinople (Istanbul) and Paris.
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Run by the Austrian national railway, ÖBB, the very first Orient Express – a scheduled EuroNight express – departed from Paris on 1st October 1883. Among the destinations en route to Constantinople were Munich, Vienna and Giurgiu in Romania. In 1885, a second route was added to include Belgrade and Niš in Serbia. From 1914 to 1918, services were suspended during World War I. After the war, the Simplon Tunnel opened in 1919, enabling the launch of a new route – known as the Simplon Orient Express – via Milan, Venice and Trieste.
The 1930s was the heyday of the Orient Express services. Three routes were in operation simultaneously: the original Orient Express, the more southerly route covered by the Simplon Orient Express and in addition a new Arlberg Orient Express, passing through Zürich and Innsbruck on the way to Budapest. It was during the 1930s that the service acquired its reputation for luxury travel, with comfortable sleeper cars and restaurant cars providing fine cuisine. The service became popular for royalty, diplomats, business people and the rich and famous.
In 1934, Agatha Christie’s novel, Murder on the Orient Express, put the service firmly on the map. The plot revolved around a murder investigation on the famous train and the group of passengers were all suspects. The lavish journey across Europe descends into a murder mystery aboard the train, as famous detective Hercule Poirot begins to interrogate the passengers, searching for clues before the murderer strikes again.
The service was again suspended from 1939 to 1945 during World War II, after which it resumed, although with slightly different routes due the closure of the border between Greece and Yugoslavia.
The Wagon-Lits company discontinued running the carriages in 1971, selling or leasing them to national railway companies but still providing the staff. The direct Orient Express from Paris to Budapest was withdrawn on 19th May 1977 and many travellers thought that was the end of the service but it continued to run until 12th December 2009.
Initially, it provided an overnight service direct from Paris to Vienna. However, from 1982, in order to travel along the whole original route, it was necessary to catch four separate trains: one from Paris to Strasbourg, the second from Strasbourg to Vienna, the third from Vienna to Belgrade and the final leg from Belgrade to Istanbul.
The final EuroNight Orient Express train left Strasbourg on 12th December 2009 for its final journey to Vienna – and the following day, the name disappeared from the European train timetables after 126 years on the track.
The original luxurious dining car, as seen in the film, Murder on the Orient Express, is now exhibited at the OSE museum in Thessalonica.
Today, a privately-run Venice Simplon Orient Express service, using vintage restored sleeping and dining cars, runs between London and Venice but it’s not the original Orient Express. The company also runs similarly-themed luxury trains – the Eastern and Oriental Express – across Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, operating luxury overnight train services in Peru, Ireland and Scotland.
The fascination with the original Orient Express continues with the news there is to be a remake of the Murder on the Orient Express movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh and featuring an all-star cast including Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp and Daisy Ridley. Produced by Fox Studios, it is due for release on 10th November.
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