May 09, 2011- Fed up with the delays, cattle seating, security lines and inferior food associated with air travel? Then join the growing number of holidaymakers getting around by rail. Luxury trains offer golden-age-of-travel perks for prices that don’t rise with every lurch in the price of oil. They’ve been jazzed up with wi-fi and DVD players and offer a more intimate connection with a destination. “Trains go right through the center of communities rather than being 30,000 feet in the air,” says Owen C. Hardy, CEO of the Society of International Railway Travelers.

Everyone’s heard of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which still plies the old route from Paris to Istanbul. But plenty of others are giving it a run for its money, of which South Africa’s Blue Train and Pride of Africa and Spain’s 28-passenger El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo are noteworthy examples. If you’re on a budget, the Blue Train, which goes between Cape Town and Pretoria, is a five-star steal, with a butler for every four suites and fares starting around $1,650 per person. “The Blue Train is operating at a very high frequency for 2011 and 2012 due to an increased demand,” says Kenneth Hieber of tour operator 2Afrika. Also affordable is Rovos Rail’s Pride of Africa, plying itineraries that stretch from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. At the other end of the scale, the superluxe El Transcantabrico, which launched last month, takes its sweet time (a full week) on a 650-km route skirting Spain’s northern coast and includes four 1923 Pullman lounge cars — à la Murder on the Orient Express but without the blood. Deluxe cabins take up half a train car each, and fares start at $5,400. That’s a lot pricier than most plane tickets, but then you won’t get deep-vein thrombosis or be required to eat off a plastic tray. (By: Matthew Link, TIME)

A few other things you didn’t know about the Orient Express…

  • Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ isn’t set on the Orient Express, it’s set on the Simplon Orient Express.  By the 1920s and 30s there were a whole inter-connecting network of Wagons-Lits company trains with ‘Orient Express’ as part of their name in addition to the Orient Express itself.  The Orient Express has always run from Paris Gare de l’Est via Munich, Vienna & Budapest, whereas the Simplon Orient Express started running in April 1919, taking a Southerly route from Calais and Paris Gare de Lyon to Milan, Venice, Trieste, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul, with a portion for Athens.  You can see the summer 1939 timetable for this train below.
  • A trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express to London has long been one of the "must-do" rail journeys

    Graham Greene’s book ‘Stamboul Train’ isn’t set on the Orient Express either – It’s set on the ‘Oostende-Vienna Orient Express’.  This train ran from Oostende & Brussels via Frankfurt to Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade and beyond, combining with cars of the Orient Express east of Vienna and with those of the Simplon Orient Express between Belgrade & Istanbul.  In the 1960s its 3-times-a-week through sleeping car from Oostende to Istanbul was withdrawn, and the ‘Oostende-Vienna Orient Express’ became just plain ‘Oostende-Vienna Express’.  In 1991 the train’s name was changed to ‘Austria Nachtexpress’, and in 1993 it was renamed again as the ‘DonauWalzer’.  With the coming of Eurostar in 1994 and the ceasing of all Dover-Oostende ferry service, the Donauwalzer was cut back to start in Brussels rather than Oostende.  The DonauWalzer survived as the Brussels-Vienna overnight train until December 2003 when it was withdrawn along with the Brussels-Milan, Brussels-Switzerland & Brussels-Copenhagen overnight trains as Belgian Railways finally pulled out of the long-distance sleeper train business.  Today, Brussels-Vienna passengers need to change in Cologne onto a new breed of ‘hotel train’ with top of the range facilities, the excellent City Night Line ‘Eridanus’ (www.bahn.de/citynightline).  CityNightLine trains have modern double-deck sleeping-cars, the deluxe rooms even have en suite showers, and a restaurant car makes a welcome return as a feature of sleeper train travel.

  • In 1962 the daily Simplon Orient Express was replaced by a slower train, called the Direct Orient Express, which had a twice-weekly sleeping-car Paris to Istanbul.  With typical inaccuracy, most journalists reported the withdrawal of the Direct Orient Express in May 1977 as the withdrawal of the Orient Express.  Wrong.  The Orient Express continued to run until 2009, as the main overnight train between Paris and Vienna (Strasbourg & Vienna from June 2007).  Until 2001, it also had through cars to Budapest and (in the form of a through sleeper on certain days of the week) Bucharest.  You can see the summer 1965 timetable for the Direct Orient Express below.
  • Don’t confuse the real Orient Express (a scheduled railway service between Paris and Vienna) with the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) run by VSOE Ltd, a special train of restored vintage ex-Wagon-Lits Company sleeping cars, or the Nostalgic Orient Express, a similar operation.  The VSOE is the one most people have heard of, costing about £1,600 or more per person from London to Venice.  See the VSOE page.
  • The Venice Simplon Orient Express website (www.orient-expresstrains.com) actually has the nerve to ask an FAQ ‘Is the VSOE train the original Orient Express..?’ and suggest that the answer is ‘yes’.

Let’s get one thing clear.  There isn’t, and cannot be, any such thing as the ‘original’ Orient Express, for a very good reason.  Take air travel.  Suppose there’s a British Airways flight to New York called ‘Flight BA123’.  Is there an actual unique aircraft called ‘Flight BA123’? Of course not.  ‘Flight BA123’ is a abstract concept, a service, a departure, something which appears in the timetable, in the reservation system and on your ticket.  BA own a whole fleet of whichever type of aircraft is required to operate flight BA123 to New York, and any of these might be used to run that flight on any given day.  And if flight BA123 existed in the timetables 30 years ago, I bet it would have been operated with different design of aircraft than it is today.  So it is with the Orient Express.  It was and is a service, and not a particular set of rolling stock.  In any case, it would have used different rolling stock at different periods in its history, and at any given time it would have required several sets of rolling stock to operate.  Think about it – in its heyday in the 1930s, it ran daily from Paris to Istanbul, a journey that took three nights.  On any given night, there must have been one Simplon Orient Express leaving Paris, another on its second night out from Paris, a third approaching Istanbul on the last night of its journey, and another three Simplon Orient Expresses travelling in the other direction towards Paris.  So there must have been at least six sets of rolling stock!

Furthermore, both the Venice Simplon Orient Express and Nostalgic Orient Express use LX-class sleeping-cars dating from 1929, the most spacious and luxurious cars built for the Wagon-Lits company.  However, the real Orient Express and its sister trains didn’t in fact use LX sleepers, at least not for the through cars to Istanbul & Athens.  Before the war, the Orient Express used S-class sleeping-cars (dating from 1922, a few years older than the LX’s with slightly smaller compartments and without all the wood marquetry of the LX sleepers), and after the war the Z-class.  LX sleepers were used on the trains such as the ‘Blue Train’ between Calais/Paris and the South of France, the ‘Rome Express’ from Calais/Paris to Rome and on the Paris-Berlin-Warsaw-Riga ‘Nord Express’.  The Calais-Trieste sleeping car attached to the Simplon Orient Express would have been an LX in the 1930s.

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