The Venice-Simplon Orient Express (VSOE) holds a special affection in the mind of both railway insiders and outsiders. To travel in this iconic train represents an essential tick on life’s to-do list and the opportunity presented to RailStaff to experience a journey on its sister train, British Pullman, was irresistible.
The luxury service presents a rail travel experience of a different vintage. Trains regularly leave London destined for some of Europe’s major cities, including, among others, Paris, Budapest and, of course, Venice.
In the UK, the British Pullman and Northern Belle trains embark on classic tours of the British countryside and for this journey we followed a circular tour through suburban London and the Surrey hills.
Passengers sat waiting for the train’s arrival at London Victoria are welcomed by onboard staff and a brass band in the station’s authentic 1920’s reception, before being shown to their reserved seats or private carriage.
A big attraction of the journey is the steam haulage in the shape of Clan Line. Its immaculate presentation and running was a testament to the members of the Merchant Navy Locomotive Preservation Society who get to travel in the locos own support coach.
Each Pullman car interior has its own distinct marquetry providing the backdrop to the five-course meal, with the main course timed to coincide with a layover at Shalford when the loco makes a stop for water.
The present day VSOE was launched in the early 1980s, several years after the operator of the original Orient Express, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, withdrew the service, blaming the rise of high-speed trains and air travel for its decline.
American businessman James Sherwood purchased two of the vintage cars at an auction in Monte Carlo and set about reviving the iconic service.
Sherwood eventually tracked down 35 Pullman carriages and began an intense period of refurbishment to try and realise his vision to create a train service the equal of any five-star hotel.
VSOE operations and maintenance is carried out at Stewarts Lane depot and like many railway operations, the presentation of the train requires many hours of dedicated maintenance by a highly-skilled team of engineers and craftsmen.
Currently the train is operating 10 Pullman carriages with a support car at either end. Interestingly the external dimensions of each car differs according to the service that it originally worked in BR and pre-BR times. The 11th operational carriage “Ione” is in the process of an extensive restoration – the start of what is expected to be a rolling programme to keep all of the carriages in top condition.
Externally, the Pullman cars are maintained to a very high standard although any attack by lineside vegetation is keenly felt by the more experienced VSOE staff.
In an increasingly bland world, it isn’t surprising that this truly unique and beautiful train attracts envious looks from the regular rail passengers at all the stations en route. Modern technology and real-time information now means that the train is well photographed and filmed by enthusiasts as would never have been possible in the past.
The five-hour journey is over all too quickly and the usual rush for the exit is replaced by passengers who are reluctant to leave.
Victoria provides the traveller a final opportunity to take one last photo of their personal carriage and loco and their proof of a “to-do” having been well and truly ticked.
With thanks to Venice-Simplon Orient Express (VSOE)