The Orient Express is the name of two long-distance passenger train services operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Although the original Orient Express was simply a normal international railway service, the name has become synonymous with intrigue and luxury travel. The two city names most prominently associated with the Orient Express are Paris and Istanbul, the endpoints of the timetabled service. Though rendered obsolete as a transportation method by high-speed trains and cheap air travel, both routes continue to run as luxury services using original carriages from the 1920s and 30s.
On June 5, 1883 the first 'Express d'Orient' left Paris for Vienna. Vienna remained the terminus until October 4, 1883. The train was officially renamed Orient Express in 1891.
The original route, which first ran on October 4, 1883, was from Paris, Gare de l'Est, to Giurgiu in Romania via Munich and Vienna. At Giurgiu, passengers were ferried across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria to pick up another train to Varna, from where they completed their journey to Istanbul (then called Constantinople) by ferry. In 1885, another route began operations, this time reaching Istanbul via rail from Vienna to Belgrade and Niš, carriage to Plovdiv and rail again to Istanbul.
In 1889, the train's eastern terminus became Varna in Bulgaria, where passengers could take a ship to Istanbul. On June 1, 1889, the first non-stop train to Istanbul left Paris (Gare de l'Est). Istanbul remains its easternmost stop. The eastern terminus was the Sirkeci Terminal by the Golden Horn. Ferry service from piers next to the terminal would take passengers across the Bosphorus to Haydarpaşa Terminal, the terminus of the Asian lines of the Ottoman Railways.
The onset of World War I in 1914 saw Orient Express services suspended. They resumed at the end of hostilities in 1918, and in 1919 the opening of the Simplon Tunnel allowed the introduction of a more southerly route via Milan, Venice and Trieste. The service on this route is known as the Simplon Orient Express, and it runs in addition to continuing services on the old route. The Treaty of Saint-Germain contained a clause requiring Austria to accept this train: formerly, Austria allowed international services to pass through Austrian territory (which included Trieste at the time) only if they ran via Vienna. The Simplon Orient Express soon became the most important rail route between Paris and Istanbul.
The 1930s saw the zenith of Orient Express services, with three parallel services running: the Orient Express, the Simplon Orient Express, and also the Arlberg Orient Express, which ran via Zurich and Innsbruck to Budapest, with sleeper cars running onwards from there to Bucharest and Athens. During this time, the Orient Express acquired its reputation for comfort and luxury, carrying sleeping-cars with permanent service and restaurant cars known for the quality of their cuisine. Royalty, nobles, diplomats, business people and the bourgeoisie in general patronized it. Each of the Orient Express services also incorporated sleeping cars which had run from Calais to Paris, thus extending the service right from one edge of continental Europe to the other.
The start of the Second World War in 1939 again interrupted the service, which did not resume until 1949. By 1963, all steam trains on both Orient Express routes had been replaced by high-speed rail.
In 1986, it was announced that the slower luxury train service would resume on both routes as a means of enhancing travel and providing a unique holiday experience. Service resumed using original carriages in 1991, on the hundredth anniversary of the Orient Express name. The beginning of the Yugoslav Wars in that year did not affect service on the Simplon Orient Express. By 1997, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, in co-operation with British Rail and the Agatha Christie Estate, re-introduced a monthly steam-powered Orient Express running on "the relevant parts of the route" between Sofia and Venice.