The problem isn’t murder on the Orient Express so much as murder of the Orient Express.
Overnight trains in Europe are disappearing fast, along with cherished dreams of romance nurtured by decades of movies such as "The Lady Vanishes" and "Night Train to Munich," and of course, Agatha Christie’s "Murder on the Orient Express," a book that spawned two movies and two TV shows. To the dismay of many passengers, it’s all happening -- overnight.
This year, French National Railroads dropped its Paris-to-Nice sleeper service, which grew up with the Riviera playground in the late 19th century as the Le Train Bleu. After World War II, the start of air service between the two cities siphoned off passengers; adding second-class coaches in the 1960s doomed Train Bleu to second-class status until the once-fabled train ended up with no name and no passengers with titles either. German Rail discontinued all sleepers in 2016 after ridership fell by 25 percent over a five-year period beginning in 2010. On some Spanish night trains, carriages were running empty, according to the Spanish railroad, which cut back service three years ago.
Blame it on cheap airfares. Or the railroads themselves. Thanks to an ever-expanding network, Europe is crisscrossed by day trains that can cruise at up to 186 mph. By comparison, Amtrak’s Acela trains hit top speeds of 150 mph, and only on a few stretches.
Blame it on speed. Old sleeping cars, mostly from the Belgian company Wagons-Lits (literally, sleeping cars) were never designed to operate on the new high-speed tracks, which allow trains to arc gracefully along curves like a figure skater gliding over ice. And no new sleepers are being built to meet those requirements.
The problem remains, though, that murder, like romance, needs a sleeping compartment, with sliding doors and mysterious characters emerging into dim-lit corridors where suspicious characters pass in the night. Never mind that the other passengers are probably tourists, too, wondering what you might be up to with your suspicious English accent. By the way, sitting up in a coach seat all night does not count as taking a night train.
These days, real spies hop on a plane. They probably don’t even smoke anymore, as James Bond did before strangling an enemy agent on the Orient Express, somewhere between Belgrade and Zagreb, in the film "From Russia With Love."
A COLD WAR JOURNEY
When that movie came out, in 1963, the best place to start an overnight rail journey was Berlin, an epicenter of the Cold War, which remained so until its famous wall came down in 1989. A few years before it did, I boarded a sleeper to Paris and caught the tail end of an era that is now mostly forgotten. Chills went up my spine as I watched the midnight-blue Wagon-Lits carriages roll by, by then refurbished and run by a consortium of state railways that cleverly emblazoned each one with the large graphic “TEN” for Trans Euro Nuit, Nacht or Notte — take your pick.
Soon after leaving Berlin, those chills turned to shivers of fear as the train stopped at a customs station after crossing the East German border. Leaning out the window, I snapped a photo of two guards boarding the car — verboten — and soon heard the sound of jackboots pounding down the corridor, a flash of the totalitarian nightmare I’d only experienced in books and theaters.
On instinct, I yanked the film from my camera. One of the guards flung the door open, and the other began shouting, “Keine photos machen. Keine photos machen,” over and over, as if volume, repetition and finger-pointing would somehow break the language barrier. I got it, "No picture taking," but I played dumb. With nothing but an empty camera as evidence, they must have decided it was too much trouble to book me and finally snorted off to terrorize someone else.
I also met a stranger on the train — or at least that’s how I like to reinvent the story. The truth is, we’d known each other for about two months from a job before being dispatched to Berlin, not to spy but to put out a daily newspaper for a big travel convention. I had already booked the sleeper. He had a free weekend. All signs pointed to Paris.
After dropping our bags in the compartment — basic, but with the luxury of a toilet, basin and a couch that folded down into two stacked berths — we dashed off to the dining car. A good dining car doesn’t need much to turn passengers into the stars of their own movie. To be sure, it does not need great food. Linen and silverware, set on booth-like tables with pull-down seats, did the trick. Later, back in the room, we toasted our adventure with cognac purchased before leaving Berlin.
Almost as sobering as the East German guards was the invasion of French conductors at 6 a.m., pounding on doors up and down the corridor while screaming our arrival, “Paris Nord. Nous sommes arrivés. Paris Nord." Worse yet was the sight of an empty bottle of cognac upside down in the sink. A killer headache was not my only souvenir, though. The stranger and I have been together for more than 30 years and are now married. When friends mention their honeymoon in overwater bungalows in Tahiti or safari tents in Botswana, always with an air of “top that,” I simply smile.
FROM PARIS TO ROME
Years later, an overnight trip on the Palatino between Paris’ Gare de Lyon and Termini, Rome’s exquisitely post-Moderne station, was also problematic. We got off to a good start after dining at Train Bleu, the Belle-Epoque restaurant in the Gare de Lyon that is connected to the tracks below by an elegant staircase — a holdover from the era when swells needed a proper dinner before boarding the actual Train Bleu.
A heat wave in Paris was the problem that night, and it hit like a wall after leaving the restaurant. On the train, an open window provided plenty of noise but little relief. A nerve-rattling whoosh tailed us all night like a tornado ready to burst into the compartment. In the morning, we went to find the dining car that was to have been attached to our train in Genoa. “Not today,” said the attendant. I wondered, “How do you forget to add a diner?” as I imagined the fate of the European sleeper on a fast downhill track.
To my surprise, the state of overnight train travel improved after that. By the late 1990s, a deluxe train called CityNightLine was running with double-deck cars and first-class cabins with showers. If the compartments had a plastic Jetsons style, they were also a big step up in comfort from the well-padded Wagon-Lits sleepers. The bar at one end of the diner had twinkle lights embedded in a small dance floor.
The good news: When German Rail dropped CityNightLine service two years ago, Austrian Railways took it over under the name Nightjet, running one-level, disco-free trains across Europe. Gone is the diner, replaced by breakfast trays delivered by attendants. Even first-class cabins are spare, and only a few deluxe rooms have showers and toilets.
As for the Orient Express system, the service to Istanbul ended more than 40 years ago. The last train to carry the Orient Express label was dropped in 2009, by then an all-coach operation between Strasbourg and Vienna that was glamorous in name only (think of the LIRR’s Cannonball, also known as the 4:06 to Montauk, which up until the mid-1960s was a real first-class train, too). Also, do not be confused by the rail excursions run by Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express — a cruise ship on wheels — with restored Wagon-Lits cars.
Even if the name Nightjet sounds more like a budget airline flying to Ibiza, we can be grateful that overnight train travel is alive and well in Europe. Spies never did like to party anyway, but they do appreciate a good night’s sleep. And maybe the opportunity for a little romance.
TAKE THE NIGHT TRAIN
There are still overnight trains in Europe — one or two each in Britain, Portugal, Finland and a few other countries such as Spain, with its modern Trenhotel system now fully replacing its old sleeper network. In Scandinavia, Swedish Railway runs an 18-hour journey from Stockholm to Narvik, a Norwegian city north of the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn't set at this time of year. (The train does not carry first-class compartments, only multibed couchettes.) No other railroad, however, has an intercontinental network to compare with the vast Nightjet system. Following are three of its most enticing routes, plus a two-night adventure to Moscow.
Berlin to Zurich. In my mind, all railroads lead to (or from) Berlin.
Zurich to Vienna. In the film "Before Sunrise," two young people meet on a train and jump off in Vienna to fall in love. On the darker side, "The Third Man" dives into a post-World War II Vienna writhing with deadbeats and dirty deals. In both films, the city steals the show. The alpine scenery in between is breathtaking, and nights are short in Europe right now.
Vienna to Milan or Rome. Either train has summer options for Venice. If choosing Milan, spend time exploring Milano Centrale, a station even grander than Grand Central, bordering on grandiose, with fascist architectural touches from its 1931 opening.
Paris-Moscow Express. A two-night excursion along the route of the historic Nord Express, through Berlin and Warsaw. Here’s the ultimate trip for international intrigue, real or imagined, but the train runs only once a week in each direction.
INFO Book trains through RailEurope (800-438-7245, raileurope.com). First-class sleeping accommodations on all Nightjet trains start from $104 per person in a shared compartment, $150 single. For the Paris-Moscow Express, $512 double; $470 single.