Dear fellow travellers
At five o'clock tomorrow afternoon, the concourse at Paris Gare de L'Est will surely be as crowded as ever it is on a busy Friday. Passengers will rush through the magnificent railway station booking hall, scarcely noticing the amazing painting that hangs here: a view of the Gare de L'Est as soldiers were leaving for war in 1914. The 5.17 pm train will probably leave on time; it usually does. Like many trains from the Gare de L'Est, the 5.17 runs up the Marne valley. Suburban sprawl and then the luscious landscapes of Fernand Pinal's paintings.
But the 5.17 is more than just any train. It is something special. It is the Orient Express. Every day since 1883, barring times of war and strife, a train has left the Gare de L'Est for Vienna, running via the Marne valley, Strasbourg, Stuttgart, Munich and Salzburg. In the early days it was called the Express d'Orient, but in 1891 the name was altered to the English version: the Orient Express. And it is a name that has stuck, as has the basic route of the train from Paris to Vienna via southern Germany. True, there were times when the Orient Express ran beyond Vienna on through the Balkans, and even as recently as 2001, it still had through carriages from Paris to Budapest and Bucharest.
Tomorrow, the Orient Express will leave the Gare de L'Est for the very last time. After over a hundred years, the French capital's most illustrious train departure will be no more. Of course there will still be the odd special train for tourists that plays with the Orient Express name and charges outrageous prices, but the regular 5.17 pm Orient Express departure from Paris to Vienna will be consigned to railway history.
The train's disappearance from Paris is prompted by the opening this weekend of the new TGV Est Européen route, which, with over three hundred kilometres of new line, will soon have France's sleek TGV trains speeding from Paris to Strasbourg in less than half the present travel time. So the Orient Express is being curtailed at its western end, and from Saturday will run only between Strasbourg and Vienna. Happily the name will survive (on the 10.20 pm daily departure from Strasbourg to Vienna). This train will be a shadow of its former self. Just a sleeping car, a couchette carriage and a couple of second class coaches that will trundle across the Rhine valley to Karlsruhe, there to be attached to the City Night Line overnight sleeper from Dortmund to Vienna. So it's not quite the end of the line for the real Orient Express, but a cut so severe that one wonders if the truncated service will survive more than another year or two.
You can read the full text of our feature on the real Orient Express, first published in May 2005, online (choose the pdf version for a better read!).
Meanwhile, we return to Europe's railways in the July 2007 issue of hidden europe magazine, when we give an account of the remarkable train that leaves Stockholm at five every afternoon - bound for Narvik in northern Norway. A journey of over twenty hours, and well over a thousand kilometres that takes travellers well beyond the Arctic Circle. And trains feature in another article too, as we munch our way round Europe on restaurant cars. Did you know that it is possible to eat Czech dumplings for breakfast on a train in Denmark, enjoy a glass of Hungarian Tokaji wine as you travel through Berlin's suburbs and savour coffee and apple strudel in an Austrian railways restaurant car while travelling through Croatia? The epitome of fine gastronomy it may not be, but there is something particularly delicious about lunch on a train.