Even when it takes place aboard restored vintage passenger cars, luxury train travel is not what it used to be—and for that, passengers can be grateful. A truly authentic first-class train trip likely would involve waiting in line to use the bathroom or to take a shower.
The first of the modern era’s opulent train lines, the Venice Simplon Orient-Express (VSOE), began running between London and Venice in 1982—six years after the original Orient-Express company went out of business—under the direction of James Sherwood. (The trip included a ferry ride.) The American entrepreneur initiated the reclamation project when he purchased two Orient-Express train carriages at a 1977 Sotheby’s auction in Monaco, but he had not arrived at the event planning to revive the train service. “I decided to attend the sale with the idea of picking up some bargains,” Sherwood writes in the introduction to Venice Simplon Orient-Express: The World’s Most Celebrated Train, a 1996 book about the VSOE. “The mob scene of press and TV which jammed the Monte Carlo railway goods depot that day convinced me that there was magic in the Orient-Express name.”
More rail lines with vintage cars began operating in the ensuing years, including the American European Express, which was founded in 1989 and which Robb Report featured in the June 1990 article “First-Class Travel.” The Royal Canadian Pacific debuted in 2000, and in this issue, assistant editor Mike Nolan writes about his journey aboard the train from one Canadian Rocky golf course to another (“Charting New Courses,”). In April 1998, Robb Report published a feature on the return of South Africa’s Blue Train (“Blue Train Rolling”), which had gone back into service in fall 1997 after a two-year, $15 million renovation to prepare it for its 50th anniversary.
Of these trains, the VSOE offers a travel experience that most closely resembles a ride from the golden age of railroads. “It’s like riding in a rolling museum, and that includes walking down the hall to go to the toilet,” says Karl Zimmerman, a New Jersey author of 19 books about trains. Indeed, the bathroom facilities typically distinguish the current luxury trains from their ancestors. Because most travelers today would balk at accommodations that lack private bathrooms, train companies have adapted accordingly. The operators of the Royal Canadian Pacific, for example, had to remodel the staterooms to include showers, even though they assembled the train from cars that the Canadian rail system reserved for the queen of England and other visiting dignitaries.
The American Orient Express (AOE) now owns the cars that once belonged to the American European Express, which went out of business in 1990. Traveling on the AOE, aboard Pullman cars built during the 1940s and ’50s, replicates the mid-20th-century sleeper car experience. However, these vintage accommodations are the train’s least expensive, in part because of their inconveniences. “Back then, an upper and lower bunk was the style, and there was no shower,” says AOE president Peter Boese. “That’s not acceptable in the market today.” Passengers who paid roughly $5,000 for a vintage Pullman berth on the company’s sold-out Great Transcontinental Rail Journey (from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles) in April had to reserve shower time on a sign-up sheet. “That’s literally the system developed in those days [when the Pullman cars originally operated],” Boese says.
The AOE may have preserved the communal showers, but the observation car is not entirely authentic, though travelers do not seem to notice. Excited passengers have told Boese that as children they had ridden in the car, also known as the New York Observation car and once the caboose of the famous 20th Century Limited train. Boese knows that their recollections are slightly off, because he has seen archival photos of the original railcar that reveal how much its interior has been enhanced and improved. “It’s about the perception of what the car looked like back in the old days,” says Boese. “It’s had a face-lift, but people, in their minds, like to perceive that this was the way it was. Back in the era, it wasn’t as posh, but we like to let them think it was that way.”