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Final call for passengers on the Orient Express as service is scrapped

07-Dec-2009 • Bond Style

The world famous Orient Express is to make its final journey after falling victim to cut-price air flights and high-speed railways - reports the Guardian.

Its name evokes images of glamour and mystery and has provided authors including Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming with perfect backgrounds for their tales of intrigue and suspense.

But now the Orient Express is to be cut from Europe's rail timetables. Next weekend, the service – which runs only between Strasbourg and Vienna – will be scrapped, a victim of high-speed railways and cut-price flights.

"The name the Orient Express will disappear from the official timetables before the year is out, after more than 125 years," says Mark Smith, the rail expert who runs The Man in Seat Sixty-One website .

Only travellers who can afford lavish private trains – such as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express and the Danube Express's Istanbul Odyssey – will be able to enjoy the service's former glory.

The original Orient Express was launched in 1883, when entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers began a twice-weekly service which started in Paris and followed a route through Strasbourg, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest to end at Varna on the Black Sea. A steamer would then carry passengers to Istanbul.

Over the years, the service improved and ferry journeys were cut out. The Orient Express earned a reputation for ostentatious luxury and spawned several rivals – including the Simplon Orient Express, which ran though Venice.

And in their tracks came the stories and novels. In 1929, the Orient Express was stuck in snow for days at Çerkezköy, near Istanbul – an incident that inspired Agatha Christie's 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express.

Christie was not the first to exploit the train's glamour, however. In 1932, Graham Greene wrote his thriller Stamboul Train, while Bram Stoker used the Orient Express in Dracula, in 1897, to carry Harker and Van Helsing to Varna to tackle the evil count, who was heading there by ship.

And in Ian Fleming's From Russia with Love, James Bond travels on the Orient Express with Tatiana Romanova, a beautiful Russian clerk, while being pursued by the Russian killer Donovan "Red" Grant.

This gripping literary lineage was not enough to save the train from the impact of cheap European flights. While rival services were axed, the Orient Express was pared back until it had been reduced to an overnight Paris-Vienna trip. Then, in 2007, France's TGV line was extended to Strasbourg, which became the service's western terminus.

As for the glamour, the silver service dinners and revelry have long since disappeared. On my trip last week, the train comprised four coaches, with only a handful of passengers. There was no restaurant car or buffet. On boarding at Strasbourg, passengers found they had been provided with an apple and a bottle of mineral water. Only those who had stocked up with food and drink had anything to look forward to. "It's a good train," our coach attendant told me. "It's nice and quiet. There are hardly any passengers to bother us." I could see why.

The carriages were clean but hard to sleep in, as the train stopped at just about every station on the main line across Austria. Then an alarm was triggered, for no discernible reason, at about 3am. Finally, at 6am, we were woken with plastic cups of coffee for our arrival in Vienna, which was in the middle of a downpour.

A small group of disconsolate wanderers emerged from the Orient Express and trudged off into the grey morning, by now utterly uninterested in the fate of the historic train on which they had just travelled. It seems unfair, in retrospect.

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