The opening, in June, of the TGV Est, France’s fourth high-speed line, will bring a sad casualty in its wake: the first stretch of the original Orient Express, the sleeper train that has connected Paris with Vienna, and places further east, for 124 years.
The last train will leave Paris for the Austrian capital on 7 June. With bookings available two months in advance, this weekend offers the opportunity to travel on the last train, a truly historic occasion.
The Orient Express in question isn’t the train featured in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express that was the Simplon Orient Express, which went from Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan and beyond or in Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train, which was the Ostend-Vienna Orient Express, travelling via Brussels. No, this is the original Express d’Orient, operated by the Belgian Georges Nagelmackers’ Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which first set off from Paris’s Gare de l’Est in October 1883, and ran between Paris and Giurgiu, a Romanian town on the Danube that had to be crossed by ferry, and whose passengers eventually reached Constantinople (as Istanbul was then known) by another train and a 14-hour sea voyage.
By 1889, when the line was completed all the way through, the journey between Paris and Constantinople took 67 hours, including three nights on the train. In those days before air travel, it was a vital link between East and West, broken only at times of war. And it was, for the most part, a luxurious form of travel, used by diplomats and politicians, and, consequently, spies and prostitutes. In his book The World the Railways Made, Nicholas Faith recalls the Orthodox Archimandrite Cyril, who, between the wars, often travelled on the train between Sofia and Belgrade œfor purely sexual purposes. He was able to consort with prostitutes away from the prying eyes of his flock “ the conductors would simply telegraph his requirements to the next stop, where the prostitutes would board the train.
During the Second World War, the train was suspended. The Germans did try to run their own Orient Express into the Balkans, but partisans kept blowing the line up.
As for today’s Orient Express, both the romance and the passengers have diminished. At Paris’s Gare de l’Est, where my partner Deborah and I recently joined the train, we found a seemingly endless set of largely empty carriages, rather rundown Corail (air-conditioned) stock that was going only as far as Strasbourg. There were just three sleeper cars tacked on to the train, inevitably at the far end of an extremely long platform (a walk we would have to do again in Vienna, since the train turns around in the night at a terminus en route).
We were met, however, by a friendly attendant who took us straight away to a compartment of our own after we discovered that we had been booked into one where we would have had to share, even though there was plenty of empty space.
Given the high fares we had paid, we envisaged a dinner service on a white tablecloth served by mustachioed waiters speaking heavily accented English, pouring us champagne from the very region we were crossing. But visions of a consomme and a delicate salmon steak were dispelled when we learned that the 21st-century catering comprised only a trolley service that, œnous regrettons, was not running that evening. Instead, the attendant supplied us with warm beers and the most tasteless sandwiches I have ever eaten.
This, it must be stressed, is not the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which travels from London and Paris to Venice with restored, mainly inter-war coaches, and offers a luxurious voyage at £1,400- plus per passenger. That was started in 1982 by the Sea Containers boss James Sherwood, and is still operating weekly in the spring and summer, despite the recent travails of that company.
The Orient Express we boarded is a direct descendant of Nagelmackers’ pioneering train, and even though one can’t expect to bump into Hercule Poirot in the corridor, I would do it again and again. This is slow travel, which, rather like œslow food, is quickly catching on, 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. And 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, and reached Vienna at 8.30 the next morning, having had an hour or so of watching the Austrian lakes and mountains while enjoying a minimal breakfast of a bread roll and jam.
There is, though, a major barrier to taking the train rather than the plane. The return trip cost us £295 each (though cheaper tickets are sometimes available), plus the price of the Eurostar ticket, compared with around £100 return for a flight from London to Vienna. Sure, it was city centre to city centre, and we could actually walk to our hotel in Vienna. We also, effectively, got two nights in our own moving hotel, but nevertheless, the price difference is considerable and the emptiness of the train suggests that there is scope for a more sensible policy.
Mark Smith, of the informative website www.seat61.com which gives detailed information on every European rail journey and many further afield “ a labour of love since he is an enthusiast with no official connection with the railways “ tells me that, fortunately, the Orient Express is rather an exception in being so expensive. œThis is almost the last international route left in western Europe with ˜classic’ pricing, where the fare is calculated by multiplying distance by a set rate per kilometre, and adding in the price of the couchettes, he explains.
He adds that, on other lines, there are some fantastic bargains for overnight sleeper-train travel available because the services are run by special companies owned by the respective railways, and set up precisely to offer deals that are competitive with the low-cost airlines. For example, Elipsos is a consortium set up by the French and Spanish railways to run the œtrain hotels from Paris to Barcelona, and offers fares as low as 67 euros (£48).
Slow travel, therefore, is available at decent prices. Another company, CityNightLine (www.citynightline.ch) runs excellent sleeper trains on many routes out of Vienna and Zurich, but is not, so far, stepping in to save the Paris route. With the greater concern about environmental damage caused by aviation, these trains have a secure future, despite the burgeoning high-speed network.
Once the TGV Est opens, the Orient Express will be truncated. The overnight trains will be taken off the lignes classiques and, instead of a 5.20pm departure from Paris, the train will leave Strasbourg at 10.20pm, and worse, on the return, passengers will be turfed out of their beds on to a cold Strasbourg platform at 6.43am, to change to a TGV. This is because SNCF is eager to maximise revenue on the new high- speed line, which will struggle to attract sufficient numbers as it connects sparsely populated regions with the capital. But through such rationalisation, a way of travel is being lost, and Mark Smith reckons that ‘the service will soldier on for a year or two, but I can’t see it surviving’.
In other words, the original Orient Express is probably in its death throes, so enjoy it while you can.