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Volume 19, Number 2March/April 1968

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The Case Of The Vanishing Train

Written by Brainerd S. Bates
Photographed by Khalil Abou El Nasr

The weather, the setting and the mood were all so right. The rain that had been pouring down on Paris all day was dissolving into a soft drizzle. The streets, black and glistening in the lights of the speeding taxi, were deserted. A damp chill came off the Seine.

We made very good time. As we sped over the Ile de Cité, down the Rue de Rivoli and across the deserted Place de la Bastille I had been uneasy. But now ahead, the clock face above the Gare de Lyon showed 11:10 p.m. I had made it with almost an hour to spare.

There were no porters, of course, but under the circumstances it was just as well, although with my baggage the walk to deep inside the terminal seemed to take forever.

Under the white oval designating the track number a large tin plaque covered with bold black letters told the whole story:

Or maybe not the whole story. It didn't say outright that this was the train most people call the Orient Express. And it certainly didn't say what my part in the story was. But then how could it? I barely knew myself.

The assignment sounded easy at first: "Find out what happened to the famous Orient Express." But when I asked for details I got some very strange replies. "It's missing," they said. "The Orient Express is missing. It was seen leaving Paris for Istanbul but somewhere between yesterday and today, about halfway between fact and fiction, the Orient Express vanished. We want to know why."

I sighed and moved along Voie 1.

Successive conductors passed me along the train until I reached Voiture V, a handsome royal blue car emblazoned with the legend "COMPAGNIE INTERNATIONALE DES WAGONS-LITS ET DES GRANDS EXPRESSES EUROPEENS." The car also displayed the company's elaborate crest and the words " Voiture-Lits" and "Sleeping-Car." I climbed aboard, found my compartment, checked to see if the corridor was empty and began to inspect it.

As a vicarious occupant of Orient Express staterooms on many paperback journeys across the Continent, I looked at this one with preconceived notions galore. The compact space which was to transport me from the right bank of the Seine to the shores of the Sea of Marmara, 1,800 miles away, fitted the picture perfectly.

The stateroom was about six by seven feet and the seat, which ran the whole width of the compartment, was already made up into a berth. In the corner opposite was a waist-high stand which opened into a minuscule washbasin. Above it was a mirrored cabinet of varnished teak with drinking glasses and a flask of water in brackets and two white hand towels tucked neatly behind the glasses. Some wonderfully old-fashioned touches gave clues as to the car's vintage: an electric fan set in the high ceiling overhead, a small steam radiator under the wide roll-down window, and, inside a cabinet of its own under the washstand, a utensil whose function puzzled me for at least a minute. Then it struck me what it was. The Orient Express had thought of everything.

While I was busy investigating these wonders a conductor came through to collect my ticket and, for French-Swiss border formalities later that night, my passport. At the same time he left with me forms to be filled out for police and customs men. I inspected them carefully and began to fill them out, thinking that whatever had happened to the old Orient Express, this aspect of it—this flavor of frontiers at night and uniforms in the darkness of the corridors—was as true as it had ever been.

Or was it? Suddenly I was alert, my senses tingling. Would this have been possible on the old Orient Express? Would a man on a mission, even one like mine, have passed so easily through frontiers in the darkness of night? Had I stumbled on something this soon?

My mind raced. Was it worth sending word? Or was it too soon? As I hesitated the issue was decided for me. The train began to move. I shrugged, watched the darkened outskirts of Paris fade away and began to unpack.

In the stateroom, I had noticed that the slide bolt to the closet was sticking. Now I pressed it harder and suddenly it slid open and the door swung back. Before me was an exact replica of my own quarters—in reverse. And suddenly the gates of memory opened too and I began to remember things—things about the Orient Express.

I remembered, for example, that more than 33 years ago on the Orient Express, in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia, Agatha Christie's Inspector Hercule Poirot had taken many hours of interrogations and pondering to figure out precisely how the murderer of Samuel Edward Ratchett had managed to leave the scene of the crime even though the victim's compartment door was locked on the inside and snow prevented escape through the window. The answer would have been obvious to anyone on these trains looking for a suitable place to store his belongings out of sight: First Class Single staterooms have connecting doors.

I remembered too that Eric Ambler had put Charles Latimer on the Orient Express and sent him all over Europe searching out the secret of A Coffin For Dimitrios. More recently, I recalled, James Bond and the beauteous Tatiana Romanova had boarded this same train near the Galata Bridge and for a tempestuous three days has ridden the same route to Dijon. Tatiana ... Ahh, Tatiana. Taking off my clothes and folding them neatly on the floor below me, I climbed into bed, opened the black attache case and, as we streaked through the vineyards of Burgundy, began to review what the files had turned up about this most famous of trains ...

The royal blue sleeper on which I rolled southeastward toward Switzerland that night was a lineal descendant of all the Grand European Expresses that once made European railroading synonymous with glamour, luxury and romance—trains like the Golden Arrow and the Blue Train. They—and the Direct Orient— have been unique both because they link such widely contrasting worlds on a regularly-scheduled basis and because they still, in an age of jets, survive.

The idea that came to be the Orient Express was reportedly inspired by George Mortimer Pullman of the United States. It called for comfortable sleeping cars in which passengers could remain to the end of their journeys even while crossing national frontiers. The plan was the dream of a 19th-century Belgian engineer named Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits and possessor of a considerable talent for getting government officials and regional railroads to see things his way.

After protracted negotiations, Monsieur Nagelmackers' company drew up a contract between Wagons-Lits and eight European carriers bearing such period-piece names as the State Railways of the Grand Duchy of Baden and the Kingdom of Wurtemberg State Railways. Under its terms the tracks were cleared for the unencumbered passage of M. Nagelmackers' rolling stock to the easternmost rim of Europe. The inaugural train—six sleeping cars and a diner—carried some 40 government officials, engineers, railroad executives and journalists and left Gare de l'Est on October 4, 1883. Routed via Karlsruhe, Munich, Vienna, and Bucharest, the train deposited its passengers, very little worse for wear, at the Bulgarian port city of Varna, from whence they proceeded south by overnight steamer to Constantinople where they began to praise the train by its inaugural title: "Express d'Orient."

Later, when regular service had been established, all Orient Express trains went from Paris to Vienna, where they split into two sections, one continuing east to Bucharest, the other going south to Constantinople via the Austrian Alps, Belgrade and Sofia. By 1889 the trip took 67 hours and 35 minutes—only seven and a half hours longer than the same trip today. When the Simplon Tunnel was opened in 1906, the section going to Turkey was renamed the Simplon-Orient Express and the Vienna section was called the Arlberg-Orient Express.

While comfortable appointments and solicitous attention drew ordinary passengers of means to these now-extensive systems, it was the storied reliability of Wagons-Lits that attracted the King's Messengers, the diplomatic couriers and other representatives of governments who eventually gave rise to the rumors that the Orient Express was somehow crawling with agents and spies. And in fact, as new national boundaries, created increasingly stringent frontier regulations, some of the passengers riding Wagons-Lits may have found encounters with inquisitive border officials distressing. It is not unlikely either that the various ingenious means they employed to conceal their identities and missions may have given rise to the somewhat sinister aura commonly associated with Orient Express even today.

Whatever dark reputation the train may have earned on its own, however, it was the masters of fictional espionage who publicized it. In the 1930's especially, but as late as the James Bond era, a whole school of writers saw the advantages in a setting so perfect for intrigue and so mobile it could span seven countries in a few days.

One of the better contributors from this school was Eric Ambler who, in A Coffin for Dimitrios, used the train as a setting for international smuggling, In Stamboul Train, a more literary "entertainment," Graham Greene put his pathetic cabaret dancer Carol Musker onto another Orient Express at Ostend to travel to Istanbul, then stopped the train under melodramatic circumstances at the obscure northern Yugoslavian city of Subotica. Ian Fleming's James Bond made a rendezvous with Tatiana Romanova at Istanbul's Sirkeci Station in To Russia With Love, then rode with her until the last stop before the Gare de Lyon. Agatha Christie outdid everyone by putting 17 assorted characters aboard the train—in Murder in the Calais Coach—and stranding them between Vincovci and Brod in a snowstorm.

I recalled that in Miss Christie's book, Inspector Poirot, who as luck would have it was one of the passengers, had begun his long train journey back to Europe aboard a Taurus Express in Syria—a reminder that Wagons-Lits service does not confine itself to the Continent. The company's current Guide in fact, indicates that passengers may travel on its cars in Algeria, Morocco and parts of West Africa, and even take Taurus Express sleepers on the Asian side of Istanbul which will land them eventually at either Baghdad or Beirut.

As all this ran through my mind that night, so did the question that had brought me to Paris: Where did it vanish, this wonderfully romantic Express? Where and why? I fell asleep thinking about it...

A sudden lack of motion woke me. It was 7:10 a.m. and I saw we had stopped at Lausanne. I dressed, stumbled to the dining car and over croissants and cafe au lait enjoyed the view of Lake Geneva all the way to Montreux. I would have lingered longer had I known then that this was the last voiture-restaurant service I would see until well inside the Turkish border, two whole days hence.

As Rapide 155 sped up the Rhone Valley through scenery growing increasingly hilly, I decided it was time to leave the confines of Voiture V and investigate adjacent cars.

All the train's other cars contained second-class accommodations: compartments for eight with facing leatherette seats. In one compartment three young men of college age were enjoying each other's company through the medium of English, "our one common language," they explained. One of the trio turned out to be a Lebanese architectural student from the American University of Beirut who was going to Istanbul. His companions, a Frenchman and an Austrian, were getting off at Milan. The Direct Orient, I was soon to discover, caters mostly to regional traffic; few passengers ride far. The 19 stations listed on the schedule do not begin to account for all the stops the train makes while progressing from France to Turkey.

As that idle thought went through my mind I suddenly drew a deep breath. If the legendary Orient Express were essentially a long-distance "local" with one or two Wagons-Lits sleepers simply tagging along, wouldn't this explain something? I resolved to probe this idea more deeply later.

At Brig, the last stop on the Swiss side, we changed locomotives and almost immediately plunged into the Simplon Tunnel, 12.3 miles long and at one point more than 7,000 feet below the pure Alpine air. It was in this very same passage that British Agent Bond had his climactic battle with Donovan "Red" Grant who had the duties and responsibilities of Chief Executioner of SMERSH, But the taut drama played out in 007's stateroom was at least illuminated by one small blue night light. I spent the 20 minutes required to go through in total darkness.

The 78-mile run from Domodossola, on the Italian border, to Milan is largely downhill and gets south-bound trains into Milano Centrale about noon. Milan is an important passenger exchange point on the Direct Orient route, and a large proportion of riders out of the north disembark there

From Milan we rolled off across the plain of Lombardy, stopping at stations in Verona, Vicenza, and Padua, and watching motorized gondolas ply the Venetian Lagoon as we pulled over the long causeway leading into Santa Lucia Termine in Venice. Occasionally I got up to stretch my legs and take a quick census of my fellow passengers. There were only two who had ridden the distance from Paris—a middle-aged couple on vacation from San Francisco. All the others had begun their journeys in Milan. I paid particular attention to an attractive career girl in one of the end compartments. She was from Milan, where she worked as a Russian interpreter for a well-known Italian industrial concern doing business with the Soviet Union. I was convinced that her employment was in the commercial enterprise sphere, but during our conversations I steered around such topics as missile site locations, harbor defense systems and relative troop strengths. On the Orient Express, one just can't be too careful.

We were rounding the head of the Adriatic now, dusk was getting deeper, and I was getting hungrier. But the best I could manage was an expensive tray of cold chicken and macaroni (kept warm in a foam plastic container). Not, I thought, what one would expect on one of the world's most famous trains. Yes, something was definitely wrong...

The next stop was Trieste where I noticed with admiration how Wagons-Lits solved the lack of porters. Station crews went through the train making up our berths for the night. The next morning in Belgrade, their Yugoslavian opposite numbers converted our compartments back for daytime use. Again I could not help comparing the tram's present operations with the way things must have been back in the 'thirties.' When Inspector Poirot, on the trail of Mr. Ratchett's killer aboard an Orient Express of that era, asked Natalia Dragoniroff if she would describe her movements from dinner onwards the night before, the aged and formidable princess replied: "Willingly. I directed the conductor to make up my bed whilst I was in the dining car. I returned to bed immediately after dinner..." My pulse quickened at that point. I was beginning to see a glimmering of light...

The Yugoslavian countryside early in the morning of our second day looked cold and muddy. We passed miles of fields where sugar beets and corn were being harvested. At Belgrade the Tauern-Orient train—another section of cars from Munich via Salzburg, Villach and Zagreb—was hooked to ours.

Some distance southeast of Belgrade, at Nish, the Athens section broke away from the Istanbul cars and rumbled off towards Skopje and Thessaloniki. We went on to Sofia. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and after six when we left. Since we were still without a dining car I had to go out again in search of food. But just as I got the Balkan equivalent of a cold hamburger in my hand, the train pulled out. Stuffing change of numerous national origins and obscure denominations into my pocket, I leaped aboard as it gathered speed for a fast getaway.

During the night, Rapide 155 rolled across a tiny section of Greece. There was no perceptible evidence of this but it must have, because a map showing the train's route says it does. In any event, the next morning we were traveling through the seventh and final country of our passage, in a land once called Thrace. The biggest news on that last leg was that a dining car had joined the train. It was an ancient wooden carriage, but it offered strong Turkish tea, bread and butter, so there were no complaints. By then, however, I was worried. The trip was coming to an end and the mystery of the missing Express was still unsolved. Thus as we switched from steam to electricity in Halkali and went clicking down along the coast of the Sea of Marmara, I sat in a state of perplexity and frustration.

And then there we were in Sirkeci Station in Istanbul, the end of the fabled Express route. The station was rich with color and noise as Yugoslavs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Turks, many in village costumes, some carrying sacks, others wearing babushkas, poured off the train in a great confused flood. The smart passengers who had boarded the Direct Orient that rainy night in Paris, I thought, had undergone a positively kaleidoscopic metamorphosis.

Suddenly I sat bolt upright. Metamorphosis! That was it! That was what had happened!

Excited now, I hurried off the train my mind running back over those dim clues so painstakingly gathered during the days and nights of travel: the realization that although police officers and security agents still prowled the trains in darkness at obscure frontiers, they no longer forced passengers out of their staterooms to display their passports and visas; the fact that although connecting doors still intimately linked the first class compartments, their fastenings were now stiff with disuse; the fact that in Paris there was a dining car, but afterwards only station-by-station foraging.

And what about the passengers? There were unquestionably diplomats aboard as there used to be, a lonely girl or two and even possibly some agents—but now they were agents for plumbing fixtures and ladies' underwear.

But the keys to the mystery were really my idle observations that at times the fabled Express resembled a local train, and that it didn't seem to be the same train in Istanbul that it had been in Paris.

It all fitted. The Orient Express wasn't missing. It was in disguise.

I saw it clearly now. Imperceptibly over the years, the Express, never quite a fact, yet never entirely fiction, had been transformed. From a crack express that only yesterday roared across Europe in an aura of wealth, intrigue and elegance, carrying wealthy travelers, high officials and beautiful, well-born ladies rapidly across Europe, it had become no more than a loosely-linked series of local railroads. To put it another way, the Orient Express had been disguised as, of all things, a train.

Oh, it had been done cleverly. All the essentials were retained, but only as camouflage. Crossing frontiers were automatic formalities, the policemen were functionaries, the mixture of peoples the quite natural outcome of a long ride through diverse countries. And why? So that the slow death of a fictional yesterday and the substitution of a reality, the kind of gray reality, in which illusion cannot exist, would go unnoticed.

I shook my head sadly, looked one last time at what for me, anyway, was now just a train sitting in a station, sighed and walked away. The mission was over and one more illusion from the past had succumbed to the realities of the present.

Outside I paused for thought. Why was I upset? After all I had completed my assignment. And if I didn't like what I found it wasn't the end of the world, it was Istanbul.

Suddenly I felt lighthearted and began to push my way through the throngs to a waiting taxi. There I supervised the loading of my luggage and slid wearily into the back seat, making sure to bring the black attache case inside with me. "Don't ever let that thing out of your sight," H had warned back at Headquarters. "If you do, we'd have to change every code in the Service." Weaving through heavy traffic on Gatala Bridge, the driver glanced over his shoulder for instructions.

"The Kristal Palas," I said. I tried to sound casual. Tatiana had promised she'd be there.

We were mounting the heights of the Pera now, and the ancient cab was feeling the strain. Before I could think, the words were out. "No, make it the Hilton." I was tired, hungry, and needed a bath—bad. Tatiana would just have to wait. She'd be disappointed, of course. But that was the thing about Tania. Besides being breathtakingly beautiful, she was the most understanding spy I'd ever known.

Brainerd S. Bates, ex-navy officer and once a freelance writer in Spain, is a Public Relations writer for Aramco stationed in Saudi Arabia.

23 :53


Rapide 155

lère et 2ème Classes

Dole — Frasne

Vallorbe — Lausanne — Vevey

Brigue — Domodossola


Venise — Trieste — Zagreb



ATHÈNE (Le Pirée)

This article appeared on pages 2-11 of the March/April 1968 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1968 images.