From the romantic era of the steam locomotive, the Orient Express retains a place in popular imagination, known for its luxury and mysticism, it has become legendary. The service was operated by the French company, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Inaugurated in 1883, the service ran continuously until 2009, except for interruptions caused by the First and Second World Wars. During the 126 years of its operation various route changes were made but the romanticism remained.
The original route snaked its way across Europe from Paris to Istanbul, meaning that western travellers could visit the East with relative ease and comfort. Stops along the way, depending on the route taken, included the capitals of many Eastern European nations such as Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia. During the twentieth century the route was shortened several times, in 1977 the route ceased to terminate in Istanbul, with Budapest becoming the final calling point before it was shortened again to Vienna. By the time the Orient Express ceased operations the route had become a fraction of its interwar heyday, travelling from Strasbourg to Vienna. The Orient Express is considered to be a victim of advances in high speed rail travel and the proliferation of no frills airlines such as EasyJet which offer long distance travel at a fraction of the time and cost.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Orient Express is its use as a plot device in many works of fiction including Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express starring the infamous detective Hercule Poirot. It has appeared in a number of other well-known novels including Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, further perpetuating the legend, mystery and intrigue surrounding the train. It has also featured in many film and television adaptations of these stories and has been introduced to younger audiences via episodes of the 1980’s cartoons Dangermouse and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
While the original Orient Express stopped services in 2009 there are various private companies around the world which use the name to run leisure tours both along the original Paris-Istanbul route as well as other locations around the world using replica or restored carriages from the 1920s and 1930s. The infamy of the Orient Express and the perpetual shroud of mystery in which it is engulfed ensure that the legend of this train will continue well into the twenty-first century.