Rail 560: It’s murder on the modern ‘Orient Express’

Immortalised in film and fiction, the ‘Orient Express’ is now a pale shadow of what it was – and CHRISTIAN WOLMAR believes it will get worse as more high-speed lines open across Europe.

THE ‘Orient Express’ is not what it used to be. The train that originally connected Paris via Vienna and Budapest with the Black Sea and Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was then known) first ran in 1883 and has been synonymous with international intrigue and murder, thanks to writers such as Graham Greene and Agatha Christie.

No longer does it carry passengers like the bishop who, according to Nicholas Faith in his well-researched book, The World the Railways Made, travelled regularly on the train for several years between Sofia and Belgrade for “purely sexual purposes, free from the prying eyes of his flock”, with the conductors simply telegraphing his requirements to the next stop where the prostitutes would board the train.

My friend Liam, who travelled on the train back from Greece in the 1970s, recalls it rather differently. By then it had turned into a cheap form of mass transit for the thousands of immigrants travelling westwards to find jobs. He says the carriages were so full that children had to be passed over the heads of the passengers in order to reach the toilet, which was already occupied by three people. Rather like First Great Western services around Bristol today! Now both the romance and the people have gone. At Paris Est, where my partner Deborah and I joined the train a couple of weeks ago, we found a seemingly endless set of carriages, mostly rather rundown stock belonging to Corail (the French equivalent of InterCity) heading for Strasbourg.

This, it must be stressed, is not the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express luxury train operated by Sea Containers but the real thing, though the ‘Orient Express’ label was not mentioned on the departure board and could only be found on the destination plate of a few of the carriages.

It was only aft er a very long walk up the platform that we discovered a couple of ‘sleeper’ cars and settled in quickly, thanks to the kindly guard who moved us straight away to a compartment of our own aft er we discovered we had been booked into one where we would have had to share, even though there were plenty of empty ones.

We had made the mistake of assuming that the little sign of a wine glass on the departure board meant there would be a dinner service, hopefully a consommé and a delicate salmon steak provided by white-jacketed waiters but, in fact, it turned out that even the trolley service that it signified was not running that night.

The guard sold us plastic sandwiches with the whitest, most tasteless bread that I had ever eaten and a couple of warm beers, and at Strasbourg I topped that up with crisps out of a machine.

Yet, despite these setbacks, I would do it again and again. This is slow travel, which rather like the über-trendy ‘slow food’, is quickly catching on as a fashion, and it is an unbeatable way to go on holiday. While flying is a method of transport, taking a train is travel in its widest sense, in the same way that cycling or walking through a town enables you to see things that drivers miss completely.

Riding through Eastern France at a relatively sedate pace gave us views of the chateaux overlooking the rolling hills of the Champagne vineyards and of fishermen casting their last lines as dusk settled over the Marne, while we so wanted to know what was happening inside those elegant 19th-century villas on the outskirts of Nancy. In short, we had a taste of France, not something we would have experienced from 30,000 feet.

There is, though, a major barrier to the expansion of this form of travel. The journey cost us £295 each plus the price of the Eurostar ticket, compared with around £100 including taxes that was being offered on the low-cost airlines. Sure, it was city centre to city centre, and we actually could walk to our hotel in Vienna, and we effectively got two nights in our own moving hotel, but the price difference is considerable and the emptiness of the train suggests there is scope for a more sensible policy. Indeed, internal travel within France on similar ‘sleepers’ is much cheaper and clearly the need to remunerate each of the national railways is part of the problem, but given that the ‘Orient Express’ will celebrate its 125th anniversary next year, surely it is time that better co-ordination and co-operation between the railways leads to fares that are competitive with the airlines.

There is, ironically, another threat to these leisurely travel experiences, the high-speed lines: just as the railways are gaining a new, environmentally-conscious customer base, ready to forgo speed for pleasure, they risk losing it. Once the TGV Est opens, the ‘Orient Express’ will be truncated. The overnight trains will be taken off the lignes classiques, which will be left with just a few ‘stoppers’ and freights. Instead of a 1720 departure from Paris, the train will leave Strasbourg at 2220, and worse, on the return,passengers will be turfed out of their beds on to a cold Strasbourg platform at 0643 to change to a TGV. This is because SNCF is eager to maximise revenue on the new line which had a pretty ropey business case anyway since it connects sparsely populated regions with the capital and, quite understandably, does not want to run competing services against itself. But in such rationalisation, a way of travel is being lost.

Similar changes are like to happen throughout Europe over the next few years as TGV Est is just one of four high-speed lines opening across the continent this year. The others are our very own High Speed 1, the new name for the St Pancras- Folkestone line to the Channel Tunnel; Brussels-Cologne; and the HSL Zuid in the Netherlands (though, therein lies a sad tale: the line for the HSL Zuid is actually completed and ready for service but the trains, which have to be fitted with the new European in-cab radio signalling system, ERTMS, are still under construction and because it was built under a Public Private Partnership arrangement, the contractors are being paid to provide a line on which no trains are running).

The high-speed network in Europe is, indeed, really taking off . Between now and 2020, the network will double in size from 4,000km to 8,000km and possibly quite a lot more. Spain has plans for a staggering 10,000km and France, Italy and Germany all have major expansion schemes on the stocks.

The scale of investment is massive. In his recent Robert Reid Lecture, Guillaume Pepy, the chief executive offi cer of SNCF and chairman of Eurostar, reckoned that an astonishing £100 BILLION – yes, that’s right – would be invested in high-speed rail over the next 15 years across Europe.

These burgeoning high-speed services are beginning to be a bit better co-ordinated through an international rail network, Railteam. It links the high-speed operators and offers integrated timetables and co-ordinated services, such as the use of business lounges. Railteam will, at least initially, focus more on high-speed travel, and will do little to make booking European rail travel any easier. Moreover, as an aside, it will do little to address the price disparity between Eurostar, which charges more than £200 for a first class one-way ticket for a 250-mile journey between London and Paris, compared with SNCF, whose maximum fare on the Paris-Marseille trip, which is over twice the distance, is just £87 and prices start at £17. M Pepy said SNCF’s aim was to maximise load factors as it had a wider social remit, but Eurostar’s pricing policies (such as a staggering £22 to change a booking if you want to take an earlier or later train) are a deterrent to rail travel. (More on this in a future column.)

At the moment, the best way of finding out about European travel is through a fantastic voluntary website offered by the man at Seat 61, Mark Smith – http://www.seat61.com – which gives detailed information on virtually every journey. It puts the rail companies to shame, since they have failed to provide such a website and done little to co-ordinate their services, or to reduce fares on longer journeys.

At the moment, the best way of finding out about European travel is through a fantastic voluntary website offered by the man at Seat 61, Mark Smith – http://www.seat61.com – which gives detailed information on virtually every journey. It puts the rail companies to shame, since they have failed to provide such a website and done little to co-ordinate their services, or to reduce fares on longer journeys.

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