Most people believe luxury train travel was the product of the 20th century’s inter-war years.
While it is true that some of the most illustrious luxury trains were firmly entrenched in this period, the history really unfolds much earlier.
Towards the end of Victoria’s reign
Ideas surrounding luxury rail travel really began in the mid-1880s, when society was on the move and the Old World was attracting tens of thousands of new international visitors.
In Britain, there had been some railway company experimentation. However, the notion of civilised travel arrangements had hardly moved on from 1862, when new Anglo-Scottish expresses were made up of primitive 4 and 6-wheeled non-connecting carriages.
This was the norm before two 4-wheeled (and later 6-wheeled) bogie stock caught on. Sprung bogie construction was still some time off to enable a smoother passenger ride.
Some railway companies like the Midland were true trailblazers with “luxury 12 wheelers”. Others remained unconvinced of benefits they delivered, citing the fact that they were heavier, required more powerful locomotives, and were a prerequisite for greater investment and capital expenditure they were loath to spend on.
For travelling passengers, the advantages were self-evident; new bogie carriages provided greater comfort and freedom to move around.
The Orient Express
The launch of the Orient Express in October 1883 provided a pivotal moment in the development of the luxury train concept.
The initial service linking many European capitals ran with two sleeping car saloons and a dining carriage sandwiched between the two fourgons or luggage cars.
However, it was the idea of better travelling experience with sumptuous accommodation that caught the media’s eye.
The launch event and the celebration of cuisine delivered by a small band of chefs working in cramped conditions was universally received with journalistic plaudits and especially with British audiences, who went on to form the majority of the luxury train’s customers.
The return journey lasted 11 days, but clearly demonstrated Georges Nagelmackers’ uncanny ability to negotiate complex travel arrangements involving national institutions and myriad railway companies across the pockets of European states.
Railway route expansion fueled the expansion of first-class trains largely driven by a combination of railway competition and increased traveller expectation.
A better to way to travel
The 1890s marked a significant step-change in Britain and how railway companies saw their customers, belatedly realising passenger expectancies surrounding the quality of travel and services were clearly evolving.
It was a decade of rapid and bewildering change as science and technology transformed the country, giving rise to the modern world. The bigger railway companies were a key lever of industrial expansion altering everything around us forever.
Whilst railways possessed the infrastructure to effect change, society as a whole was knocking on their doors demanding transformation.
An educated and moneyed upper and middle-class, benefiting from the professionalisation of society (on both sides of the Atlantic), demonstrated personal ambition, self-confidence and a willingness to tap into life’s better things.
Railway companies and shipping lines were the new conduits of better ways to travel.