Who Built the Orient Express?

I was reading about the comeback of the Orient-Express for the 2024 Olympic Games. That’s when I realized that what I knew about the train is mostly limited to the famous “Murder on the Orient Express,” Agatha Christie’s novel—and the multiple adaptations I watched.

The History of the Orient Express

First, for those who are not familiar with the gruesome murder of Samuel Ratchett on board the Orient Express during the 1930s, as told by the queen of the murder mystery, you may not know about this famous train—to be honest, if we are still talking about it, it’s because of Christie’s books.

The Orient Express was a long-distance passenger train service. A luxurious one. Today, the trip costs around $5,000 a day. Lux was always part of the concept.

Everything started after Georges Nagelmackers, from Belgium, discovered the last “innovations” in railway travel during a trip to America. Yes, we are talking about “sleeper cars.”

Nagelmackers had a vision: launching luxurious trains that will lead to the Gates of the Orient.

To do exactly that, he created “la Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits,” aka CIWL, in 1876, to provide trains with luxury decorations, unequaled comfort, unique services on board, travel agencies, and workshops throughout Europe.

It took time to establish a route from Paris to Constantinople—you know, Istanbul! There were financial troubles, but also some hurdles in negotiating with various national railway companies. But in 1883, October 4th, to be precise, the train started its first trip.

The Orient Express, ads (1888)

Why the Orient Express?

You may think that being the man behind the idea and the company that launched it, Georges Nagelmackers would also be the one who gave it its famous name. But it was not the case.

In reality, it was the newspapers that called it the “Orient Express,” even though the train didn’t really go far into the “Orient”—no trip to Asia, it just stayed in the Middle Eastern region. In any case, the name became famous as Nagelmackers embraced it.

The Orient Express was a hotel on wheels that took you from Paris to Istanbul in a little over 80 hours. Kings, Tsars, and Presidents used it for their travels. Apparently, spies liked it too. The one who hated it was apparently Hitler. He wanted it to be blown up. Well, at first, he used it as a symbol of his own victories, but when the tides turned, he knew the train could become a symbol of his failures and tried to avoid that.

The “Orient Express” quickly became more than a train, a brand. In 1894, Georges Nagelmackers founded the “Compagnie Internationale des Grands Hôtels,” and opened palaces to extend the experience of a journey as modern as it was luxurious in the countries crossed by the Orient Express.

In 1919, after a new route through the Alps opened, the Simplon-Orient-Express train started its first trip as Paris was now connected to Istanbul via Milan and Venice, through the Simplon tunnel. It was that specific route that inspired Agatha Christie to write her 1934 novel.

The Orient Express, ads (1891)

What Killed the Orient Express?

Being the train of choice for the rich and famous in Europe, the Orient Express couldn’t survive the development of the air market. On May 20, 1977, the Orient Express made its last direct trip between Paris and Istanbul.

The brand was still used later. In fact, in 1988, a Japanese television company commissioned a special running of the Orient Express, linking Paris (France) to Tokyo (Japan) via Berlin (Germany), Minsk (Belarus), Moscow (Russia), and Siberia (on the rails of the Trans-Siberian Railway), with transshipment to Yokohama by ship. It did it once.

“Murder on the Orient Express” kept the original train alive in the dreams of millions of readers, but the Orient Express that was would never be again. Yes, the Accor group will relaunch the line with the original cars that were found in 2018, then restore them to some glory, but it will not be the same.

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