The real history of the Orient Express

The Orient Express

In the 1860s, the concept of globetrotting tourism was alien, and in Europe, only the rich could afford to go on a trip across the continent. Even though there were railroads in Europe, they were often dirty and went across fragmented routes. These routes often came to an end at the countries’ international border points. As the expansion of travel by rail continued, luxurious hotels sprung up at the stations to serve the travellers’ needs but it was apparent that the travellers also needed some luxury in the trains they were travelling in. This gap was extremely big as there was a stark contrast between the trains in which the passengers spent most of their time whilst in the journey and the hotels which they spent their nights. The hotels were quite luxurious.

The entrepreneur George Nagelmackers decided to combine trains and hotels in Europe so as to satisfy the gap that existed. He did not get this idea until he was sent by his family to the United States of America. George Nagelmackers came from a family of Belgian bankers that had investments in railroads in Europe. Following the civil war, he was sent by his family to the United States of America in an attempt to have him get over a failed relationship with his cousin. While he was in the United States he saw the Pullman cars which had been invented by George Pullman. They were designed for long distance travel. The Americans had just started to use these cars which were more luxurious, comfortable, and hotel-like, unlike the cars of the trains back in Europe which were sooty. American cars were clean and staffed by workers who were friendly and catered to the passengers in a manner that provided comfort and luxury. The cars were also different from the European version of trains in that they had beds.

The Franco-Prussian war nearly derailed him, but his company was already formed by 1873. He called it Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. George Nagelmackers did not want to stop at just creating sleeper cars but wanted to create a better luxury travel experience for his passengers that began from Paris all the way to Istanbul. This was known as Constantinople.

George Nagelmackers managed to remove the borders and immigration problem by befriending the then King of Belgium King Leopold II, who was also a railroad enthusiast. King Leopold II had family ties to the most powerful monarchs in Europe, and hence George Nagelmackers was able to easily get permission to run his trains across the international borders effortlessly.

Nagelmackers’ fascination with the George Pullman cars led him to approach him with an offer for partnership, but George Pullman rejected him. Nagelmacker returned to Europe with the sole aim of copying Pullman and making his own even more luxurious train cars.

Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits started operations in 1883 with its maiden voyage. With these cars, passengers in Europe could experience luxury on a train for the first time. Instead of bad service and soot, the passengers were met with excellent customer service coupled with plush seats, beds with silk and a hotel within the train that served fancy dishes such as caviar and oysters. There were also musicians who played music on the train.

This train was synonymous with luxury in travelling at a time when travel was rough. It was later referred to as the Orient Express by the media which comprised of newspapers at the time, this name stuck and was embraced by George Nagelmacker himself. Many people travelled using horses and horse carriages as cars were not yet in mass production. The first car to be put in series production was invented in 1878, and it was known as the Mancelle. It was powered by steam with only fifty being produced. This left passenger train services such as the orient express to be a monopoly at the time.

The original endpoints of the orient express passenger train service were Paris and Constantinople (Present day Istanbul). The Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul in 1977 when the management decided it would reach Bucharest. The route was later shortened to Budapest in 1991 and to Vienna in 2001. The Orient Express was decommissioned in Dec 2009.


The Real History of the Orient Express

The real history of the orient express begins in 1883. After many problems starting up the service and difficulties in negotiations with railway companies, Nagelmacker through his company Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits established a route from Paris to Constantinople or present-day Istanbul.

The Journey on 4th October was a highly publicised event. Many journalists had come on board to cover the event. The proprietor, Mr Nagelmacker arranged to have the then obsolete coaches stand in the adjacent tracks to show the contrast. The train had a classy ambience with wooden panelling, leather armchairs, luxurious upholstery, and other luxurious accessories that gave the passengers a feeling that they were in a luxurious hotel. The trip from Paris to Istanbul aboard the Orient express would take eighty hours or almost three and a half days to complete.

The Orient Express proved to be irresistible to the wealthy Europeans; the poorer population was unable to afford trips on the service. On average, a single trip on the Orient Express cost a quarter of the annual wages of an average French citizen. In 1889, the railway line in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) was completed, and this made the trip all the way to Constantinople or present-day Istanbul possible.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) station opened in 1890, and this was the beginning of the golden age of the Orient Express. It enabled the train to make its way from Paris to Istanbul station faster than a boat. In the 1890s, the Ottoman Empire was in its decline however, due to the opportunities and population influx that was brought about by the Orient Express. This made the capital of the Ottoman Empire still flourish with trade, and by 1900, it was a hive of activity. Because the city was a travel hub, this meant that it was cosmopolitan in nature with the Turks, Armenians, Jews and Greeks living together.

The Orient Express also led to the influx of investors, diplomats from the west, and artists. Constantinople as a final destination still got the attention of many people and had a lot to gain from the Orient Express. However, the main aim of the Orient Express was to link up major European cities as was seen in its schedule. It had daily runs from Paris to Munich, Vienna and Budapest, and it reached Constantinople only two times in a week.

The Orient Express gained a lot of fame and affinity with the people and the leaders such that some kings and presidents opted to use the train. Some of these leaders even made outrageous requests for the coaches to be modified to suit their needs. Others requested to drive the train by themselves. Amongst the many leaders who travelled on the Orient Express was Ferdinand of Bulgaria who opted to lock himself in the bathroom for fear of assassins.

The King of Belgium King Leopold II travelled on the Orient Express on his way to Istanbul as well. Bulgaria’s king requested to be allowed to drive the train through his country and his wish was granted, though he drove at very high speeds. The president of France in 1920, Paul Deschanel, was seen as he tumbled from these cars at night and the talk that followed about this event made him resign. He had consumed some sleeping pills and had fallen out of his window whilst wearing his pyjamas.

Due to the preference of the Orient Express passenger service train by the kings, tsars, and spies, it was later called the Train of Kings. Other famous passengers on the service were Mata Hari, Robert Baden-Powell, Marlene, Dietrich, Lawrence of Arabia, Tolstoy, Trotsky, Diaghilev and other fictional characters such as James Bond and Hercule Poirot. The train was also referred to as the spies express with spies such as Robert Baden-Powell choosing this as his travel option.

The Orient Express, or one of its cars at least, also had historical significance as it was used when German officers signed a surrender document on November 11, 1918, in one of its cars. This particular car had been converted to a conference room. It was exhibited in Paris as a historical symbol, but after 1940, Hitler commanded for its return to original spot where the surrender had been signed so that France could sign its own surrender. After Hitler established that he would lose the war, he ordered it to be blow up four years later so that the French could not claim it as a trophy.

The Orient Express, like any other famous symbol, had its fair share of scandals and controversies. In the trips that followed shortly after its inception in 1883, a lot occurred that made news headlines in those days. The early trips were dangerous in that in 1891, there was a kidnapping of five passengers who were held at ransom. The following year comprised of yet another scandal which made headlines as the train was quarantined after an outbreak of cholera on the train. In 1901, the train had experienced brake failure and came to rest at Frankfurt’s station restaurant.

In the 1930s, the train had caught the eye of criminals and a Hungarian terrorist group caused its derailment that led to the death of twenty passengers. Notably, in this event, the famous singer Josephine Baker helped in tending to the injured after the unfortunate incident. In the 1950s, the body of an American citizen naval attaché was discovered in a tunnel on the route that the Orient Express followed, with the murder remaining unsolved to date.

Some cars on the train had been converted for reuse as gazebos. By the thirties, there were several Orient Express copycats which had been developed to cover other routes such as the Simplon Orient Express which ran via Venice and Belgrade. The Stamboul Train, dubbed as the Oostende Vienna Orient Express, was also developed as another Orient Express copycat and ran through Brussels and Frankfurt. The Ostend Vienna Orient Express was so successful that another branch running to Athens was established. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was incepted in 1982 by an American offering the same ambience, luxurious cars with leather seats and luxurious upholstery as the original Orient Express, coupled with coaches that had been refurbished. It has become renowned and is now a legend.

Nagelmacker’s Orient Express has largely been copied by many other train services in attempts to replicate the success. Majority of these train services cover different routes, and they still used the term Orient Express for promotional purposes. Many promoters have attempted to recreate the yesteryears of the Orient Express by encouraging the passengers to dress up in 1920’s fashion. The modern versions of the Orient Express paint a picture of stark contrast from the original as it has become a normal train service for regular travellers whilst in the past, it was deemed fit for spies, kings and crooks alike, diplomats smugglers, big game hunters and other prominent people.

It was a train of choice for Europe’s wealthy lot. The train symbolised income inequalities. It snaked its way through half a dozen countries with farmers pausing their work in fields to have a look that the magnificence of the train’s shiny cars and the faces of the wealthy in the cars.


The First World War saw the abrupt end in the movement of people in Europe from one place to another, and this greatly affected the demand for the travelling services as countries were in conflict with each other. This meant foreigners were treated as alien enemies and, therefore, may not have been welcome. This situation was compounded on the day that Austria declared war on Serbia and the Orient Express came to a standstill.

Other companies and countries took advantage of the war which had paralyzed the operations of the Orient Express and decided to come up with their own luxury train passenger service. One of these countries was Germany. Germany and its allies started a luxury train passenger service at the height of the First World War. This luxury passenger service train went all the way to Constantinople or current day Istanbul. After the First World War, there were overall shifts in power and political changes that led to the redrawing of the railway routes of the European railway system. This resulted in the limitations of various passenger railway services and the enhancement of other passenger railway services that were well connected. The original Orient Express was left to serve up to Bucharest whilst a new train was introduced that bypassed Germany. It was called the Simplon Orient Express. It went through the Swiss Alps via the Simplon Tunnel, through to Italy, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and subsequently to Greece and then finally to Turkey.

The Treaty of Versailles gave the Simplon Orient Express a monopoly that would last ten years on the Paris to Constantinople route and it later introduced steel carriages that had fancy art décor in the interiors. It became popular with diplomats, artists and writers.

The Simplon Orient Express was made even more famous by the novel Murder on the Orient Express. This novel by Agatha Christie had been inspired by when the Simplon Orient Express had been snowed on for five days at a small station in Istanbul, However, actual murder on the Simplon Orient Express did not occur until one year later.

The new Simplon Orient Express also had its scandals and controversies when in 1935, a wealthy Romanian woman was robbed by her companion and pushed to her death through an open window in her compartment. It took two years to find the killer after the rail workers found her body in mid-1935 beside the tracks near Admont in central Austria on the route that the Simplon Orient Express followed.

In Conclusion

The Orient Express did satisfy an actual gap in the market place when George Nagelmackers travelled to the United States of America and witnessed Americans travelling by rail in style. This was in sharp contrast to the old and sooty coaches back home in Europe. Given this opportunity, it was prudent for George Nagelmacker to develop a similar service to cater to the wealthy Europeans who wanted to travel in luxury across continents without the need for passports. This became a reality when George Nagelmacker managed to convince the Belgian King Leopold II to help him convince other monarchs to allow the train to pass through their kingdoms. The fact that the train ride covered a distance of 3000 kilometres over the European continent without the need to stop at border points as was the case in the past, coupled with the luxury and good customer service, made the Orient Express appealing. Those who could afford the ticket took up the opportunity with open arms as is it served a niche market of kings and other wealthy people. The train service declined during the world wars, but it was revived through the Simplon Orient Express in the later years past the world wars. It, however, took a route slightly different from the original Orient Express, but still had Istanbul as the final destination.

You can still experience the luxury of travelling on the Venice Simplon-Orient Express in the Belmond VSOE which has been assembled from the original European Orient Express carriages which date from the 1920’s which have been meticulously resorted. Checkout The Orient Express prices for full details.

Why not treat yourself to one of the world’s most luxurious train journeys and travel in style across Europe.