The Train That Never Was: Orient Express, A Transport Icon

Orient Express.

The name alone conjures up a train that is a classic of glamour, excitement and intrigue.

Logo on the Orient Express coach ‘Zena’. Photo by Garry Knight [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

It’s a quite specific thing, what most British people think of, when they hear the name Orient Express. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me (because they know I’m interested in that kind of thing) that they’ve seen the Orient Express from their own – much more conventional – train. This is what they’ve seen:

VSOE at London Victoria,. Photo by Hornbeam Arts [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

They’re sort of right. But they’re also sort of wrong. Because despite being a transport icon – an example of transport with name recognition far outside those with a professional or personal interest in transport – there’s no such train as the Orient Express. It’s not really a train at all.

The picture above is of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), launched in 1982. Once a week or so, this train of beautiful brown and cream carriages with sumptuous Art Deco interiors leaves London’s Victoria station. Its passengers are travelling at a cost of at least a couple of thousand pounds each. And even this train isn’t the full story, because it’s just the British part of the Orient Express. This train does luxury day trips all over the place  (marketed as the British Pullman) on the days when it’s not running Orient Express services, which is how most British railway travellers encounter it.

When operating for the VSOE this train goes only as far as Folkestone, where the passengers are turfed off, and popped onto luxury road coaches which are whisked through the Channel Tunnel to France. They then board the continental VSOE, headed to Venice (occasionally Prague, Budapest or Istanbul). The journey is a luxury two-day land cruise with 5-star food and accommodation.

The VSOE in Paris. Photo by Renaud CHODKOWSKI [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

But traditionally, the Orient Express never ran from London at all. Somehow, it’s got muddled up in our collective memory with the Night Ferry (for which carriages from London were physically transported on board a train ferry before making their way to Paris or Brussels) and other domestic Pullman operations. The British part of the VSOE uses coaches rescued from the Brighton Belle, a Pullman train service which ran (for the most part, anyway) in the Pullman company’s brown and cream colours, the reason there is a cultural understanding in the UK that brown and cream trains mean luxury. The ‘original’ Orient Express was operated by Wagons-Lit, a different company altogether which operated sleeper trains across continental Europe. Wagons-Lit trains were blue and gold, and so is the train which operates the continental part of the VSOE today.

Embed from Getty Images

Except even that isn’t the full story. Because until 2009, it was possible to catch another Orient Express altogether, and a rather more prosaic one. It was this train service which could draw a direct line of descent from the ‘original’ Orient Express which started running in 1883 between Paris and Giurgiu and then onward by two ships and another train to Istanbul (or Constantinople as was); direct services came a little later. By the time of its withdrawal, the Orient Express was running from Strasbourg to Vienna, and was operated by OBB (the Austrian State Railway) as part of the EuroNight network. It looked like this; probably not the mental image most of us have when we hear the words “Orient Express”:

Orient Express sleeping car in Vienna, 2002. Photo by The original uploader was Tobias b köhler at German Wikipedia (Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

And even that isn’t the whole story (I can recommend The Man In Seat 61’s history, from which many of the historical details in this article are drawn), because there was a whole network of different Orient Expresses by the 1930s. The Simplon Orient Express took a more southerly route between Paris and Istanbul than the Orient Express, while the Arlberg Orient Express took a route through Switzerland. Even the Orient Expresses themselves weren’t one service. Carriages were attached and detached en-route to serve various origins and destinations. For instance, through sleepers were available from Calais, which attached to the various Orient Expresses in Paris for onward travel. Of course, with this many Orient Expresses, it is obvious that the Orient Express was never a train at all, but a set of services operated by a number of trains. We can partly blame British pre-nationalisation railway companies for adding to the general British misunderstanding of the difference between trains and train services by naming some locomotives after named train services. There were train services called the Flying Scotsman and the Coronation Scot, and actual physical locomotives called Flying Scotsman and Coronation which were named after them, and the former might or might not be hauled by the latter.

The Orient Express was never quite the hedonistic luxury operation that the current VSOE is today. The LX-type carriages used on some parts of the Orient Express services in the 1930s (and used on the continental VSOE today) were certainly very glamorous, but they were supplemented by much less sumptuous carriages too. After the Second World War, conventional railway company sleeper carriages were introduced into the trains alongside those operated by Wagons-Lit, and the Wagons-Lit operation essentially ceased in the 1970s, leaving the Orient Expresses (there was another post-war one, the Direct Orient Express) in the hands of the regular railway. The operation was slowly whittled down until it became the OBB train withdrawn in 2009, but between 1982 and 2009 the luxury VSOE and the OBB Orient Express ran concurrently.

And just to add further confusion, French state railway operator SNCF has just announced that it has sold a 50% stake in the brand-name “Orient Express” (which it owns), and plans to relaunch the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul as a luxury operation, presumably while the VSOE continues to operate too. For a train service with such a complicated history, this seems like an entirely appropriate state of affairs.

So why do we associate the Orient Express with glamour, excitement and intrigue? It’s undeniable that we do. Who can forget Chanel’s sumptuous miniature movie promoting overnight train travel? Actually, on second thoughts, I think it was supposed to have been promoting the fragrance Chanel no.5. But all the romance and glamour we have come to associate with the Orient Express is there, luminously, on screen.

Well, for a start, it’s in the name. Orient. There’s something inherently exciting and exotic about Istanbul as a destination; the gateway to Asia. The Orient Express wasn’t just a night train within Europe, but one that could take you to the very edge of Europe, from where you could begin an exploration of altogether more unfamiliar places.

And, of course, there is Agatha Christie and her novel Murder on the Orient Express. One of an extensive series featuring the moustachioed Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot, it was well-received on publication and has been (along with the whole Poirot canon) enduringly popular ever since. It is set on the Simplon Orient Express rather than the Orient Express, and features a Pullman-type lounge/seating car (even though there wasn’t one on the real train) allowing Poirot to deliver one of his famous deductions in front of the collected suspects in a case. Despite Poirot’s Belgian background, Christie’s works are quintessentially English, and perhaps that’s why people assume that the pre-VSOE Orient Express must have served London. The plot sees the train stuck in a snowdrift (this actually happened to a real Orient Express in 1929) and an American ‘businessman’ murdered during the night. The clues Poirot finds seem contradictory and misleading, until he reveals the truth of the murder, the details of which I won’t spoil here.

The story has been adapted several times for cinema and television. Albert Finney played Poirot in the 1974 film adaptation, and David Suchet in 2010 as part of a long-running adaptation of all the Poirot stories by British television network ITV. It’s a very atmospheric version of the story, even if (to judge by the exterior shots of the train) there is a part of southern Europe which is forever the damp flatlands around the Nene Valley Railway in Cambridgeshire.

This November sees the release of yet another film version, with Kenneth Branagh playing the detective, alongside quite the most ridiculously prodigious moustache ever to grace a screen Poirot.

There was even a 2014 episode of Doctor Who set on an interstellar version of the Orient Express. Many of the tropes of Murder on the Orient Express were present and correct, albeit with the addition of the odd space mummy.

It’s no doubt Murder on the Orient Express which is in large part responsible for the cachet which surrounds the Orient Express today. But it was able to do so only because the Orient Express already had a degree of exoticism imparted by its destination at the edge of Europe. After all, despite Christie also writing 4.50 from Paddington, there is little similar excitement amongst the wider world for catching the 16:49 Paddington to Oxford service (the closest departure to 4:50pm) beyond its immediate utilitarian value.

Yet when maritime goods company Sea Containers launched the VSOE in 1982, it was the subject of considerable media attention. Alan Whicker travelled on the train for his Whicker’s World series, and it has been featured in various books, newspaper articles and television programmes ever since.

The VSOE was the brainchild of Sea Containers chief executive James Sherwood. Sea Containers had built up a considerable hotels and leisure business alongside its core maritime activities, including the Cipriani Hotel in Venice. Realising the emotional pull of the Orient Express name, Sherwood bought and refurbished the vintage carriages needed to operate his new version of the Orient Express with the idea of transporting people from London and Paris to Venice where they would stay in… the Cipriani.

Sea Containers would later successfully bid for the inter-city East Coast train operating franchise in the UK, and the GNER brand it came up with used the dark blue of the continental VSOE as the base for its visual identity. GNER would eventually contribute to the downfall of Sea Containers, and the hotels and leisure business, Orient-Express Hotels, which the VSEO was part of, was divested. Orient-Express Hotels later changed its name to Belmond, and it operates the VSOE to this day, along with two other British luxury trains, the Northern Belle and the Royal Scotsman, as well as others in Europe, Asia and the Americas. But none have the same instant name recognition as the Orient Express.

The VSOE might not be the ‘real’ Orient Express, and trying to define the ‘real’ Orient Express is in any case something of a fool’s errand. But the Orient Express is certainly a transport icon, whatever it is.

Bibliography and Further Reading

The VSOE’s own webpage on the Belmond website, here

The Man In Seat 61’s two excellent webpages on the Orient Express and the VSOE, here and here (from which a lot of the historical information above was drawn)

Daily Telegraph interview with James Sherwood, 27 April 2012, here

11 thoughts on “The Train That Never Was: Orient Express, A Transport Icon

  1. NERDY COMMENT WARNING.

    The ex-Brighton Belle cars can be distinguished from the other Pullmans by their shape. The standard Pullmans have perfectly flat sides. The Belle cars have sides which are angled inwards from the bottom of the windows. That gains two or three inches extra width up to table-top level.

    The car in the foreground of the photograph is a standard Pullman, the vehicle behind is a standard BR Mark 1, which is probably the baggage car.

    The picture here illustrates both types.
    Pullman car 'Audrey' leaving Shalford

    1. Pretty sure that once you’re leaving comments on a transport design blog (a niche subject within a niche subject) you don’t have to warn anyone about nerdy comments. That’s pretty much what we live for here…

  2. Does anyone else feel that it was rather odd – and indeed something of a pity – that GNER took the Wagons-Lit dark blue from the totally unrelated (in all respects apart from ownership) VSOE continental rake rather than somwthing with more historical resonance on its actual routes?

    There are many historic railway colours that I don’t think would work on modern inter-city stock (I’m still not completely sold on the GWR dark green) but both apple green and garter blue really would look good.

    I do rather keep hoping that they will be used one day. HS2? Well, it might fit with some of the stated design aspirations for Britain’s new railway…

    1. Yes. I found the whole of GNER’s branding a bit of a swizz (there’s an article about it on here somewhere). Suspect you’re right about apple green and garter blue. Central Trains used both, after all. And as for HS2, let’s hope so. Anything provided it’s not a DfT-specified grey…

  3. Warming to my own theme, I can almost imagine the HS2 design concept discussions:

    “If only there was an example of British railway prowess with a publicly-recognised name that symbolised both speed and Anglo-Scottish links…”

    “If only there was a historic and publicly-recognised name from the pioneering days of Britain’s railways that even today shouts ‘speed’, not just in terms of railways but with a nod to futuristic very fast objects…”

  4. With my LMS pedant’s hat on, “Coronation Scot” was strictly a named train, plain old “Coronation” being the loco.

      1. Off on a tangent, but in the 30s the LNER had “Coronation” and “Silver Jubilee” named trains (streamlined), whilst the locos with the exact same names were both LMS!

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