The most celebrated train service in European railway history will not see out the year. The Orient Express has run in various guises for 126 years, with occasional interruptions for wars. But Europe's new railway schedule, which comes into effect shortly before Christmas, has no room for the train that connected East with West and injected intrigue into international travel.
The much-truncated international service presently shuttles each night between the Austrian capital, Vienna, and Strasbourg in eastern France. But when the final westbound service arrives in the Rhine city at one minute to nine on the morning of 12 December, the Orient Express will have reached the end of the line.
The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express – a luxury private train that use 1920s rolling stock – continues unaffected; it runs from Calais (with connections from London) via Paris to Venice. As its one-way fare of £1,550 demonstrates, it is not a conventional component of the European rail network – unlike the Orient Express, which appears in timetables as a regular "EuroNight" train.
At its height, the Orient Express provided a trans-European artery, linking Paris with Istanbul, with onward connections to eastern Turkey and Syria. The service to Turkey's largest city ended in 1977, but the Orient Express continued from the French capital to Bucharest in Romania. Then, in 2001, the eastern section beyond Vienna was abandoned. Even so, this left rail romantics with the 915-mile stretch between Paris and Vienna that Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Wagons-Lits sleeping-car company, had pioneered in 1882.
Two years ago, however, the portion from Paris to Strasbourg was severed, leaving passengers with only a short overnight link between the Rhine and the Danube. Even this is less grand than it sounds: barely an hour after leaving Strasbourg the carriages are connected, at Karlsruhe, to an Amsterdam-Vienna express (itself to be withdrawn in December).
John Potter, a compiler of the Thomas Cook timetable, said: "I think closure was inevitable, once the section from Paris was cut."
As an advance copy of the September edition reveals, other notable night trains are facing the axe. They are expensive to run, and – as the Continental high-speed rail network expands – progressively less appealing to travellers. Rail Europe has withdrawn its overnight "Snow Train" from Paris to the Alps, which was run for the benefit of British skiers.
Christian Wolmar, the leading rail commentator, was one of the last passengers to experience the Paris-Vienna service. He said: "It's a great shame in this age when there's a renaissance of rail travel that they can't keep such an important Central European link going. High-speed trains are all very well, but trains that are the equivalent of a gentle drive through the country should be preserved. It's tragic that it's going, and I'd love to see some way of saving it."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies