The Orient Express was the name of a luxury train that provided service across Europe throughout the 20th century. Founded in the 1880s, the train soon became the worldwide symbol of upscale travel by rail. The route’s easternmost stop was in Turkey, on the border of the Asian continent, or the Orient. The famous train was featured in books, movies, and popular culture, including a classic mystery story. It officially ceased operation in 2009, although a similar company quickly took up the traditional route.
Belgian businessman and engineer Georges Nagelmackers founded the Express d'Orient in 1883. At the time, the rail infrastructure in Europe was still under construction. Passengers had to take a steamer ship to the easternmost terminal in Istanbul, Turkey, then known as Constantinople. In 1889, rail construction was completed, allowing passengers to take the train directly from Paris to Istanbul, a 68-hour trip. The train was officially renamed the Orient Express in 1891.
Originally, the service relied on rails and locomotives provided by the various nations along the route. Nagelmakers’ innovation was to provide luxurious sleeper cars, similar to the Pullman service then popular in the United States. These, along with gourmet meals and service personnel like a person might find in a classy hotel, established the Orient Express as an upscale institution. It became a status symbol for wealthy travelers to take the Express during European vacations. Its route through sometimes hostile nations provided it with an image of intrigue and romance.
The Orient Express service was interrupted during the First and Second World Wars, resuming as soon as European peace was re-established. Alternate routes traveled through Switzerland, Italy, and even Greece, sometimes disrupted by wars and other conflicts. A London stop was provided by the Channel Tunnel, completed in 1994. The original Orient Express ceased operations on 12 December 2009, to the dismay of rail aficionados everywhere. A similar service, with equally luxurious accommodations, remains in operation as of 2011.
From its inception, the Orient Express provided an exotic locale for books and movies. Dr. Van Helsing’s band of vampire hunters uses the train to outrace Dracula in Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 horror novel. Agatha Christie, inspired by a trip on the southern route, wrote Murder on the Orient Express in the 1930s. The mystery has since been adapted many times, including an award-winning 1974 film with an all-star cast. Other writers inspired by the romantic route included British authors Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, who set a scene on the train in the James Bond adventure From Russia With Love.