The Orient Express was the name of a long-distance passenger train service created in 1883 by Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL).
The route and rolling stock of the Orient Express changed many times. Several routes in the past concurrently used the Orient Express name, or slight variants thereof. Although the original Orient Express was simply a normal international railway service, the name has become synonymous with intrigue and luxury travel. The two city names most prominently associated with the Orient Express are Paris and Constantinople (Istanbul), the original endpoints of the timetabled service.
The Orient Express was a showcase of luxury and comfort at a time when travelling was still rough and dangerous. CIWL soon developed a dense network of luxury trains all over Europe, whose names are still remembered today and associated with the art of luxury travel – the Blue Train, the Golden Arrow, North Express and many more.
In 1977, the Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul. Its immediate successor, a through overnight service from Paris to Vienna, ran for the last time from Paris on Friday, June 8, 2007. After this, the route, still called the "Orient Express", was shortened to start from Strasbourg instead, occasioned by the inauguration of the LGV Est which affords much shorter travel times from Paris to Strasbourg. The new curtailed service left Strasbourg at 22:20 daily, shortly after the arrival of a TGV from Paris, and was attached at Karlsruhe to the overnight sleeper service from Amsterdam to Vienna.
On 14 December 2009, the Orient Express ceased to operate and the route disappeared from European railway timetables, reportedly a "victim of high-speed trains and cut-rate airlines". The Venice-Simplon Orient Express train, a private venture by Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. using original CIWL carriages from the 1920s and 1930s, continues to run from London to Venice and to other destinations in Europe, including the original route from Paris to Istanbul. In March 2014 Orient-Express Hotels Ltd. was renamed Belmond.
In 1982, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express was established as a private venture, running restored 1920s and 1930s carriages from London to Venice. This service runs between March and November, and is firmly aimed at leisure travellers, with tickets costing over $3,120 per person from London to Venice including meals. As of October 2009 the company offers once a year service from Paris to Istanbul in August and Istanbul to Paris trip in September. Other routes include:
The company also offers a similarly themed luxury train in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, called the Eastern and Oriental Express.
In North America, the American Orient Express, formerly the American European Express, operated several train sets in charter service between 1989 and 2008.
On June 5, 1883, the first Express d'Orient left Paris for Vienna. Vienna remained the terminus until October 4, 1883. The train was officially renamed Orient Express in 1891.
The original route, which first ran on October 4, 1883, was from Paris, Gare de l'Est, to Giurgiu in Romania via Munich and Vienna. At Giurgiu, passengers were ferried across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria, to pick up another train to Varna. They then completed their journey to Constantinople by ferry. In 1885, another route began operations, this time reaching Istanbul via rail from Vienna to Belgrade and Niš, carriage to Plovdiv and rail again to Istanbul.
WL Orient Express
In 1889, the train's eastern terminus became Varna in Bulgaria, where passengers could take a ship to Constantinople. On June 1, 1889, the first direct train to Istanbul left Paris (Gare de l'Est). Istanbul remained its easternmost stop until May 19, 1977. The eastern terminus was the Sirkeci Terminal by the Golden Horn. Ferry service from piers next to the terminal would take passengers across the Bosphorus to Haydarpaşa Terminal, the terminus of the Asian lines of the Ottoman Railways.
The onset of World War I in 1914 saw Orient Express services suspended. They resumed at the end of hostilities in 1918, and in 1919 the opening of the Simplon Tunnel allowed the introduction of a more southerly route via Milan, Venice and Trieste. The service on this route was known as the Simplon Orient Express, and it ran in addition to continuing services on the old route. The Treaty of Saint-Germain contained a clause requiring Austria to accept this train: formerly, Austria allowed international services to pass through Austrian territory (which included Trieste at the time) only if they ran via Vienna. The Simplon Orient Express soon became the most important rail route between Paris and Istanbul.
Badge of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits on a car of the Orient Express
The 1930s saw the zenith of Orient Express services, with three parallel services running: the Orient Express, the Simplon Orient Express, and also the Arlberg Orient Express, which ran via Zürich and Innsbruck to Budapest, with sleeper cars running onwards from there to Bucharest and Athens. During this time, the Orient Express acquired its reputation for comfort and luxury, carrying sleeping-cars with permanent service and restaurant cars known for the quality of their cuisine. Royalty, nobles, diplomats, business people and the bourgeoisie in general patronized it. Each of the Orient Express services also incorporated sleeping cars which had run from Calais to Paris, thus extending the service right from one edge of continental Europe to the other.
WL Golden Arrow
The start of the Second World War in 1939 again interrupted the service, which did not resume until 1945. During the war, the German Mitropa company had run some services on the route through the Balkans, but Yugoslav Partisans frequently sabotaged the track, forcing a stop to this service.
Following the end of the war, normal services resumed except on the Athens leg, where the closure of the border between Yugoslavia and Greece prevented services from running. That border re-opened in 1951, but the closure of the Bulgarian–Turkish border from 1951 to 1952 prevented services running to Istanbul during that time. As the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, the service continued to run, but the Communist nations increasingly replaced the Wagon-Lits cars with carriages run by their own railway services.
By 1962, the Orient Express and Arlberg Orient Express had stopped running, leaving only the Simplon Orient Express. This was replaced in 1962 by a slower service called the Direct Orient Express, which ran daily cars from Paris to Belgrade, and twice weekly services from Paris to Istanbul and Athens.
In 1971, the Wagon-Lits company stopped running carriages itself and making revenues from a ticket supplement. Instead, it sold or leased all its carriages to the various national railway companies, but continued to provide staff for the carriages. 1976 saw the withdrawal of the Paris–Athens direct service, and in 1977, the Direct Orient Express was withdrawn completely, with the last Paris–Istanbul service running on May 19 of that year.
The withdrawal of the Direct Orient Express was thought by many to signal the end of Orient Express as a whole, but in fact a service under this name continued to run from Paris to Budapest and Bucharest as before (via Strasbourg, Munich, and Budapest). This continued until 2001, when the service was cut back to just Paris–Vienna, the coaches for which were attached to the Paris–Strasbourg express. This service continued daily, listed in the timetables under the name Orient Express, until June 8, 2007. However, with the opening of the LGV Est Paris–Strasbourg high speed rail line on June 10, 2007, the Orient Express service was further cut back to Strasbourg–Vienna, departing nightly at 22:20 from Strasbourg, and still bearing the name.