Simon Calder: An icon of European rail travel is finally killed off

As an announcement of a momentous death foretold, it is remarkably economical. "Train 468/469," reports the September edition of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable "Strasbourg to Wien [Vienna] will finally be withdrawn." Between those two phrases is the most momentous pair of words in European rail travel: Orient Express. Seventy-five years after the publication of Agatha Christie's bestselling crime novel, Murder on the Orient Express, the train that epitomised trans-European travel for more than a century is finally being killed off.

Lest you have set your sights on a luxury rail trip aboard vintage rolling stock to Venice, allow me to put your mind at rest: the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express – the up-market private train – will continue to run. But the service that provided intrigue and inspiration for generations of travellers is to be axed with barely a whimper.

"Death by a thousand cuts" sums up the demise of the Orient Express. Since it first ran, on 4 October 1883, from Paris to the Danube city of Giurgiu, its trajectory has changed many times as frontiers and alliances in Europe have shifted. But the core route, which began 120 years ago, linked Paris with Istanbul.

The journey began at Gare de l'Est, still the most atmospheric of the termini in the French capital, and raced through the Champagne region, Lorraine and Alsace, crossing the Rhine at Strasbourg – where the current, much-truncated service begins. The last abbreviation of the Orient Express, two years ago, coincided with the opening of a new high-speed line from Paris to the Alsatian capital, rendering the old "classic" train between the Seine and the Rhine redundant: travellers are invited to travel at 200mph on the stretch from Paris, and change trains to the Orient Express.

The diminished service still has 113 days to run. Board by 12 December and soon after leaving Strasbourg you will pass the village of Appenweier in western Germany. Here, a self-aggrandising plaque announces this little halt to be the rail crossroads of Europe: where the line of the Orient Express crosses the line from Hamburg and Cologne south to Switzerland and Italy. Travellers sleep their way through southern Germany, arriving at Vienna's Westbahnhof – a station that retains a sense of style – at 6.40am.

For Orient Express passengers up to 1977, Austria's capital was just the beginning: Budapest beckoned, then Belgrade and Bulgaria, before the train brushed the Bosphorus and arrived at Sirkeci station in Istanbul – far from the most stately station in Europe, but handy for a boat to Asia, just 10 minutes away.

Who is to blame for the demise of Graham Greene's Stamboul Train? We travellers are, of course, abetted by low-cost airlines. They effortlessly undercut the longest rail trips in Europe. A one-way ticket on easyJet from Gatwick to Turkey's largest city the day after the demise of the Orient Express costs under £50, barely enough for a train from London to Paris.

Strange as it may seem, at a time when a glamorous trans-European train faces closure, "middle-distance" rail travel is enjoying a revival thanks to accelerated journeys; the new Trainseurope desk at St Pancras International in London is already extending its opening hours to cope with the demand for journeys deeper into Europe than the usual Paris/ Lille/Brussels trio.

As one travel icon faces extinction, another is coming to Britain. Greyhound plans to start low-cost, high-quality bus links from London to Portsmouth and Southampton next month. Any new service is good news for travellers. But while Greyhound and America's endless freeways make a perfect match, "Riding the Dawg" down the A3 to Hampshire lacks the romantic resonance of Interstate 80 from New York to San Francisco.

Life for the US bus traveller is not so rosy. Thomas Cook's new Overseas Timetable says of the new Greyhound US schedule: "As usual, there are even more reductions in services." Paul Moore of Greyhound's owner, First Group, says revenues are down by one-fifth, so "It does not make economic or environmental sense to run the same number of services that we did previously. We still link 3,000-plus destinations across North America." And soon New Hampshire will be joined by the original.

Airports play the name game

More evidence of the airports' need to attract traffic: Oxford airport's rebranding as the capital's sixth airport. London is still the world hub of aviation, with around 125m travellers likely to use its five "real" airports this year – many more than Paris, New York or Tokyo. No surprise, then, that the Oxfordshire airport should want to capitalise on the capital's desirability. But will it work? Plenty of other airports have attempted to manipulate geography in order to enhance their appeal. When the owners of Tees-side airport wanted a more distinctive name, they avoided the obvious contenders – the adjacent towns of Darlington and Middlesbrough – and opted for "Durham Tees Valley". And had the management of Coventry airport taken my advice to rebrand as "William Shakespeare Stratford International", the Warwickshire airport might not now be moribund.

East Midlands airport tried for a couple of years to describe itself as Nottingham, much to the irritation of the equidistant communities of Derby and Leicester. But it has now returned to the original name, perhaps partly because Icelandair once referred to it on a map as "Nothingham".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

    £Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence