Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
Murdering the 'Orient Express'
Saturday 03 February 2007
Paris in June is usually a delight but on the second Friday of that month this year, one location in the French capital will be a sad place: the handsome Gare de l'Est.
This is the neo-classical railway terminus that serves Champagne, Lorraine, Alsace and all regions to the east. It is also the place at which, shortly before 5.17pm on 8 June, the station announcer will administer the last rites for the final Orient Express from Paris.
Once, l'Express d'Orient was the most celebrated international train in the world, departing daily from Paris to Istanbul. From June, though, the train is about to suffer what must surely be its final ignominy: the amputation of the initial 300 miles of its already much-curtailed journey.
THE TRAIN that inspired writers and movie-makers currently runs from the French capital only as far as Vienna. Since the Ottomans retreated, the Austrian capital can barely be described as Oriental. Even so, the Orient Express has a faithful clientele. Mark Smith, the leading rail expert known as "The Man in Seat 61", calls it "Well used, very pleasant and time-effective". The finest way to arrive in any city is to emerge from a sleeper berth on to the platform of a great terminus, and into a grand café for coffee (assuming that you have remembered to change out of your pyjamas).
GET ON board soon: after 8 June, anyone hoping to travel on what remains of the Orient Express will first have to orientate themselves to travel 300 miles in an oriental direction to the easternmost city in France: Strasbourg. The nightly train to Vienna will start from here, and spend barely 10 minutes in French territory before slowing down to cross the Rhine and enter Germany.
Why is it happening? Because the much-needed new high-speed line across eastern France is due to open in June. The Paris terminus for the latest fleet of Trains à Grande Vitesse is Gare de l'Est. And when the French introduce high-speed trains, they scrap "classic" trains linking the same locations. On 10 June, the new TGV Est Européen brings 186mph trains to the previously neglected east of France. The Paris-Strasbourg run will take two hours 20 minutes, just over half the time the Orient (not-very-)Express takes to cover the same distance.
The train that epitomised intrigue and romance is due to celebrate its 125th anniversary on 4 October next year. But the Orient Express is being slowly murdered by a thousand cuts. It should be allowed to disappear with what is left of its dignity - or pass on its glory to the unrelated luxury train service that trades on its name, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which continues unabated. And the Strasbourg-Vienna overnight train should be re-named the Rhine-Danube Express. ANOTHER CASUALTY of the new line is the nightly sleeper train south-east from Paris. Passengers currently slumber as the couchettes rumble through Troyes, Mulhouse and Basel, and across Switzerland to Chur - a town splendidly located for quick connections to some of the most spectacular Swiss scenery.
From 10 June, rail travellers from the French capital to eastern Switzerland will be expected to take a contorted route from Paris via Strasbourg, then south along the left bank of the Rhine to Basel and onwards to Zurich. And they won't be expected to sleep, either, since this option runs only during the day. But the Man in Seat 61 says CityNightLine, the German-based sleeper operator, could come to the rescue: "Zurich-Paris is a good candidate if they can overcome French prejudice and TGV-reliance".
FORGET THE Orient Express: try the Polar Express. Aficionados of the sleeper who enjoy an afternoon nap should catch a train north-east to Finland. The state railway has rejigged its schedules, which means some overnight rolling stock finds itself out of position. An entire sleeping car train has to be re-located south from Lapland to the capital each Saturday. As a result, reports the latest Thomas Cook European Timetable, a sleeping-car train leaving the town of Kolari at midday on Saturday and arrives in Helsinki just after midnight. The compilers of this excellent volume say "Not so much a 'night' as a 'siesta' train".
TAXING TIME FOR PASSENGERS
On Thursday morning the airwaves crackled with airline bosses deploring the doubling of Air Passenger Duty, which came into effect that day.
Certainly, the manner in which the tax rise was handled was ludicrous. The Treasury ignored the millions of passengers who had booked tickets prior to the Chancellor announcing the rise.
The airlines have muddled through by asking for the extra tax nicely (easyJet), not asking at all (British Airways) or not asking but taking the cash anyway (Ryanair). Yet the airlines have laid the ground for easy tax rises. For years, they have been inventing taxes, portraying airport and security charges as government levies rather than commercial costs.
Mike Carrivick, who represents the interests of UK airlines, told Radio 5 Live that he had to pay taxes of £235 on a return to Australia. The genuine tax liability is just £70; by citing the higher figure, he is diluting the real effect of the tax increase.
Andy Harrison, boss of easyJet, says the rise will "not create environmental benefits". Well, it should suppress demand for domestic flights: the duty rise hands an instant £10 advantage to round-trips by rail and road. But if Mr Harrison is right, then Gordon Brown can simply keep raising APD until some flights are axed.
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