Death of Orient Express no mystery

By Simon Calder

The victim is 117 years old, much loved and respected, and can tell a thousand tales of intrigue and treachery.

But the 21st century has not been kind to her, and now a death sentence has been served. When new international rail schedules begin on June 10, the Orient Express is to be killed off.

The train in question is the direct descendant of the service that began on October 4, 1883, taking 80 hours to reach Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Despite numerous interruptions caused by breakdown, snowdrifts, terrorism and war, Europe's greatest international train has continued to appear on timetables.

At present, it links Paris with the Romanian capital, Bucharest, twice weekly. From June, the service will end at Vienna. The body that coordinates international rail services is proposing to change the name on the reasonable grounds that it can hardly be called an express, and goes nowhere near the Orient.

The Grand Express d'Orient was a revolutionary concept, introduced by a Belgian entrepreneur and named by Georges Nagelmackers who, sadly, never became as famous as his United States counterpart George Mortimer Pullman.

At its sumptuous peak, elegant navy-blue-and-gold carriages carrying the brass crest of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Europeens concealed interiors and fittings straight from a Victorian manor house.

Waiters clad as butlers served first-rate food and wine to a clientele who expected nothing less. Dining-car chandeliers were crystal, the cutlery was silver, the napkins were linen and the upholstery was leather.

The artistry and detail of the wooden marquetry were exquisite; the solid brass table lamps and the luggage-racks were objects of beauty.

Celebrities and spies (often one and the same person, as in the case of Mata Hari) could travel in relative luxury from the Seine to the Bosphorus.

The Orient Express, as it soon became, provided an essential link between a continent tearing itself apart - and provided plenty of opportunities for intrigue, romance and treachery. Murder was not especially commonplace aboard the express, but sex certainly was: call-girls would board en route to provide some in-train entertainment.

Despite innumerable political derailments - and an early hijack attempt - Europe's premier train kept running through most of a turbulent 20th century.

Sometimes, extraordinary demands were made in exchange for the right to pass through a country: King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and his heir Boris, demanded the right to drive the train through their kingdom.

The introduction of cheap air travel after the Second World War began the slow decline of the Orient Express. Rolling stock from its golden days was snapped up by the operators of privately run luxury trains, including the highly successful Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which is continuing to offer a luxury service from the Channel to the Adriatic.

At 20 minutes past midnight local time on Friday, June 8, the last ever Orient Express train will depart from Bucharest, arriving a day and a half later in Paris.

After an overnight stay, the traveller will be able to board the very first Train a Grand Vitesse covering the 770km between Paris and Marseille in three hours flat. The 21st century has begun, and there is no longer room for the relics of the 19th.

- INDEPENDENT

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