Orient Express tickets are sold by two companies

The “Orient Express” is called “King of Trains” and “Train of Kings”.

Kings, writers, actors and spies have traveled the original route between Paris and Istanbul, which began in the late 19th century.

Author Agatha Christie described the Orient Express as “the train of my dreams”. She put a best-selling crime thriller on its carriages, and fictional spy James Bond drove it in the film From Russia With Love.

Travelers may think of the Orient Express as one luxury train, but over the years there have actually been quite a few with many routes and owners.

Soon people will be able to choose to ride multiple trains using the Orient Express nickname from two competing companies, the LVMH-own luxury travel company Belmond and the French multinational hospitality industry accord.

Both have original carriages from the late 19th century. However, they differ in how they are designed, where they travel and how long they have been in operation – one for decades and the other due to hit the market in 2024.

Story behind the “Orient Express”

The original train was designed by a young Belgian engineer named Georges Nagelmackers, who was inspired by the Pullman sleeper trains he rode on a trip to the United States in 1868.

Nagelmackers wanted to build something similar – but more luxurious – for upscale passengers in Europe. In 1883, the “Train Express d’Orient” made its first journey from Gare de Strasbourg in Paris (today Gare de l’Est) to Vienna.

The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express will open eight new suites in June 2023.

Belmond

A few years later, the train was renamed the Orient Express and headed to Istanbul, then known as Constantinople. Travelers flocked to the train’s modern technology and luxurious silver cutlery and silk sheets.

Soon the Nagelmackers company began building higher quality trains for other European routes, including one that ran through the then-new Simplon Tunnel linking Switzerland with Italy, as well as the “Arlberg-Orient-Express” running between Calais, France and Budapest , Hungary.

By the 1970s, the original Orient Express trains had completed their final runs and the carriages were falling into disrepair.

But in the 1980s, two businessmen made separate efforts to revive it.

James Sherwood, an American, reportedly spent $31 million to acquire and restore enough railcars to form the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express,” now owned by Belmond. (To add to the confusion, Sherwood also added hotels to his tour group, naming them Orient-Express Hotels. He renamed the company Belmond in 2014.)

The Swiss tour operator Albert Glatt launched a connection between Zurich and Istanbul, known as the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express”, which is now owned by Accor.

The ‘Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express’

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” has been operating since 1982. The train consists of original restored carriages, which Gary Franklin, Vice President of Belmonds Trains and Cruises, called “works of art”.

“This train is steeped in so much history,” he said. “The carriages are beautiful.”

As for Accor’s plans to launch a train, also called the Orient Express,” Franklin said, “we’re the ones who’ve been doing that for 40 years, and I think we take it as a huge compliment that people… see how well we do with it.”

A one-night ride on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express costs from £2,920 ($3,292) per person.

Belmond

Belmond has secured a one-off license deal to use the Orient Express name on its Venice Simplon train, Franklin confirmed, while Accor has the rights to the brand as a whole.

The “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express” travels to Paris, Venice, Vienna and Florence for the first time in winter in December and invites guests to visit the Christmas markets in these cities.

And next June, new suites will be opened on the train, equipped with private bathrooms, steward, kimonos and slippers.

A one-night journey costs from £5,500 ($6,135) per person in the new suites, which are a step below the train’s most luxurious category – the Grand Suites – which come with private dining, underfloor heating and “free-flowing” champagne , according to the website.

A suite on the “Venice Simplon-Orient-Express”.

Belmond

Tickets for about half of the new suites have already been purchased, and Grand Suites (about $9,600 a night) are nearly sold out, Franklin said.

The “Nostalgic Istanbul Orient Express”

A few years after Glatt had put his train back on the rails, it once again stood still.

Fast-forward to 2015, when French railway company SNCF – which owned the rights to the Orient Express name at the time – hired researcher Arthur Mettetal to find the train.

“We had a beautiful brand but no cars,” Guillaume de Saint Lager, now vice president of Orient Express at Accor, told CNBC. “We knew this complete train existed, but we didn’t know where it was.”

Using Google Maps and Google 3D, Mettetal located 17 of the original cars on the Polish-Belarusian border.

French hotel group Accor is restoring carriages of the “Nostalgic Istanbul Orient Express” that were found dilapidated on the Polish-Belarusian border.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | accord

In the bar car of the “Nostalgie-Istanbul-Orient-Express” there will be a bar with a glass counter, a homage to the French designer Rene Lalique.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | accord

Much of the interior trim — including original inlays or ornamented wood — is intact, de Saint Lager said.

A detailed restoration is now underway, with architect Maxime d’Angeac being commissioned to design the interiors. His brief was to “have a kind of fantasy of what Art Deco could be,” d’Angeac told CNBC over the phone. He said he has an important collection of original drawings and models of the train.

Original Lalique glass lamps in the shape of a flower will illuminate the train’s corridors, while other original elements from the rediscovered train will also be incorporated, such as luggage racks and door handles.

A corridor of the “Nostalgia Istanbul Orient Express” is equipped with original glass Lalique flower lamps.

Maxime d’Angeac | Martin Darzacq | accord

The bar car will feature call buttons for champagne and service, while the dining car will have a mirrored ceiling and a glass wall to the kitchen so guests can see the chef.

The bedroom suites will feature leather walls, embroidered headboards and ensuite marble bathrooms. De Saint Lager described it as a “cruise train” that allows guests to disembark at lesser-known locations (routes and prices to be announced).

Passengers will also soon be able to stay in Orient Express hotels, the first of which will depart from Rome in 2024, according to the Accor website.

The Orient Express “La Dolce Vita”

Accor has further plans to use the Orient Express name. The company is also developing six “La Dolce Vita” trains that will travel through 14 regions in Italy and neighboring countries, with the goal of having 10 Orient Express hotels by 2030.

A depiction of the “Orient Express La Dolce Vita” that will connect Rome to cities like Paris, Istanbul and Split.

Dimore Studio | accord

These trains will pay tribute to a different era than the Venice Simplon or the nostalgic Istanbul trains.

“La Dolce Vita” – which translates to “the sweet life” – refers to Federico Fellini’s 1960 film and a sense of Italian glamor and pleasure. The trains will embody “the Italian art of living and all its beautiful traditions,” according to an online post by interior design company Dimorestudio, which is working on the project.

The trains will have 18 suites, 12 luxury cabins and one “suite of honor”. Most depart from Rome’s Termini station, where passengers have access to a lounge before departure, and will travel around 16,000 kilometers (approximately 10,000 miles) on rail lines, with stops at lesser-known Italian destinations.

A rendering of a bedroom suite on the Orient Express La Dolce Vita, showing the 1960’s style decor of the train.

Dimore Studio | accord

In addition to the Orient Express La Minerva Hotel in Rome, Accor will also open the Orient Express Venice Hotel in a restored palace in 2024. In addition, Accor plans to open an Orient Express hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

According to a company representative, these trains should also be on the market in 2024.

— CNBC’s Monica Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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