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What is the Orient Express?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By julies — On Feb 12, 2012

Even though a plane ride would be a quicker way to reach your destination, I think a ride on the Orient Express would have been a great experience.

From what I have read, the Venice-Simplon Orient Express which runs today is very similar to the original, but still would not be quite the same.

I have always been curious as to what kind of travelers can afford this type of trip. If you were fortunate enough to be able to afford something like this, would you see someone rich and famous?

By John57 — On Feb 12, 2012

When I think of the Orient Express I remember watching the illusionist David Copperfield. During one of his presentations it looked like he made one of the passenger cars on the Oriental Express disappear.

Does anybody else remember seeing this? This was one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen. I have always been intrigued by illusions like this, and wonder how you can appear to make something like a luxury railway car simply vanish.

As he was riding aboard this train, you had a good idea of the luxury that was provided on this train.

You don't hear much about people traveling by train today. Most train trips are not associated with luxury and special treatment like on a ride on the Orient Express would have given.

By honeybees — On Feb 11, 2012

@andee - I have never had the privilege of riding on the Orient Express, but know it is not cheap. When I was in college, I did a report on what it was like to travel on the Orient Express train.

I remember that a ticket from Paris to Venice cost around $3000 per person. This trip usually took 2 days and one night.

I think this would have been the trip of a lifetime and you would have been taken back to a different era.

The chance to dress up and be treated like royalty would have been something you would have never forgotten.

One thing that stood out to me was with all that luxury, they did not have showers on board. The rooms were equipped with a wash basin that had hot water, but if you were hoping for a hot shower you were out of luck.

It is probably a good thing most of the trips were not for more than a couple of nights.

By andee — On Feb 10, 2012

Ever since I saw the movie Romance on the Orient Express I have been fascinated with this luxury train service.

There is something very romantic and intriguing about riding on a train like this. It sounds like something that would be too expensive for an average traveler.

Does anybody know how much Orient Express tickets cost? I am sure this is something that would have been out of my ball park, but is still fun to wonder what it would have been like.

I also remember seeing the Orient Express in the movie, 101 Dalmations. It didn't have quite the same romantic allure that the Romance on the Orient Express had, but it was still very interesting.

By matthewc23 — On Feb 09, 2012

@JimmyT - You are correct. The Orient Express has definitely been romaticized over the years due to the charm that such travel provides.

The first time I ever remember hearing about the Orient Express was when I saw the James Bond film From Russia With Love.

This movie was romanticized enough and when someone watching a good movie like this one learns that the train being used is real it just adds to the trains legend and draws more people to it.

The Orient Express definitely has a very long and unique history and I am guessing it was just its time in 2009 to be replaced by another train.

By JimmyT — On Feb 09, 2012

@titans62 - You are absolutely right. More people could afford to ride on this train due to the evolution of classes over the decades and this caused the Orient Express to build up quite a legacy.

I had never heard of the Orient Express until the book by Agatha Christie came out and this book added a certain charm to the train and caused people to wonder more about it.

There is something about a mode of travel that provides everything for you at a moments notice that appeals to peoples minds and creates a romaticized atmosphere. I am sure this is what led many people to want to ride this train and caused it to stay in operation for so long.

By titans62 — On Feb 08, 2012

@kentuckycat - You are absolutely correct. The Orient Express was created during a time when luxuries like the Orient Express were seen as more of a symbol than just traveling in luxury.

It really does surprise me that something from this era that was so extravagant lasted so long and it was no replaced or scrapped entirely decades earlier.

I am guessing that since the class gaps became closer to one another more people could afford to pay the money to travel on the Orient Express and that this is why is was able to stay in operation for so long.

By kentuckycat — On Feb 07, 2012

I find it very interesting that such a train created to promote the luxury of a period was still in operation up until only a couple of years ago.

When the Orient Express was created it was during a time when there was an extreme gap between rich and poor and the Orient Express could be seen as a symbol of luxury that most people of the world could not and could only dream of having.

Traveling in such style is something that I did not think would last that many decades, but I guess I am wrong and this train was built to last.

By indemnifyme — On Feb 07, 2012

I've always found the Orient Express train route kind of interesting. From what I recall, it changed over the years depending on what was going on in Europe politically.

As the article said, it stopped operations during the World Wars. And there were certain times the route had to be changed because countries closed their borders and wouldn't allow the train to go through.

I find it pretty admirable the Orient Express was able to adapt their route and services over the years and stay in business so long!

By KaBoom — On Feb 07, 2012

@ceilingcat - I think you're missing out on the romantic allure of Orient Express travel. Yes, air travel is easy. But it's also cramped and uncomfortable for the most part! You can't get gourmet meals and good service on most airplanes. These days the most you can hope for is a packet of peanuts!

I can totally understand the allure of taking a train ride through Europe on such a luxurious train. Imagine how much scenery you could see! And I'm sure the accommodations on the train are much more comfortable than a tiny airplane seat.

I'm not surprised the Orient Express remained popular, and I'm also not surprised another service sprang up to take its place when it closed!

By ceilingcat — On Feb 06, 2012

I had no idea that the Orient Express train ran until 2009! For some reason I thought this train was a thing of the distant past. I guess I was mistaken!

I'm actually kind of surprised this service was popular enough to last until 2009. How many people really want to travel by train these days? You can take an airplane pretty much anywhere you want to go, and get there fairly quickly and efficiently. And air travel isn't that expensive. Most people who can afford to take a vacation can also afford air travel.

By Kat919 — On Feb 06, 2012

Reading Murder on the Orient Express is actually a really good way to get a sense of what an Orient Express train ride was like in its glory days.

It has a sketch of how the car was laid out, for instance. The reader gets a sense of what the sleeping accommodations were like (poor Hercule Poirot had to travel second class) and what the level of service was like. Some of the passengers were traveling with servants. Truly a classic novel.

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