Georges Nagelmackers (1845–1905)

Georges Nagelmackers established an international company that came to symbolise luxury travel by rail. He was born in Liège to a wealthy family who had interests in railways and banking, and links to the Belgian royal house. As a young man he travelled in the United States and was impressed with the railway services developed by George Pullman (1831-1897). He returned to Belgium in 1869 with plans to develop international through rail services, and in particular to attract the custom of British travellers bound for India and going  by train to Brindisi in southern Italy from where they continued by steamer. His plans were frustrated by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, but in 1872 he began to operate services from Ostend to Berlin, from Paris to Cologne and from Vienna to Munich, and the following year gained favourable publicity by providing trains to take Parisians to the International Exhibition in Vienna. Lack of capital forced him into partnership with a rival, the American, Colonel William d’Alton Mann (1839-1920), a retired cavalryman, who had supplied the first sleeping car in Great Britain to the Great Northern Railway in 1874, and ran a company called Mann Boudoir Sleeping Cars operating trains in Germany, Belgium, France and the Habsburg Empire. Nagelmackers became general manager of the joint company on 31 August 1874 and on 4 December 1876 bought out Mann, and established the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, to which the words ‘et des Grands Express Européens’ were added in 1883. The new company took over all the Mann services between the principal cities of German, extending across the German borders to Vienna, Bordeaux, Ostend and to Orsova on the Danube, the eastern frontier of the Habsburg Empire. The company supplied food and drink to sleeping car passengers, and in 1881 constructed in Munich its first restaurant car for daytime use.

The Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens’ operated some of Europe’s most celebrated trains. On 5 June 1883 there was a demonstration of what was to become the Orient Express running from Paris to Giurgowo, on the Danube in present-day Romania, where passengers embarked on steamers to Constantinople. A daily service on part of this route, from Paris to Budapest, began on 1 June 1884, with connections twice a week to Giurgowo. After the construction of new railways in Bulgaria, from 1 June 1889 the Orient Express took passengers all the way from Paris to Constantinople in 67 hours 35 minutes without change of carriage. The company extended its operations into Spain in 1880, the Rome Express from Calais began to run in 1883, the Nord Express from Paris to St Petersburg in 1884, and the Sud Express from Paris to Lisbon, where connections were made with transatlantic steamers, in 1887. Nagelmackers’s ambition to convey India-bound travellers from England from the Channel coat to Brindisi was finally achieved in 1890 when the Brindisi Peninsular & Oriental Limited Express began to run from Calais. From 1894 a train from Ostend to Trieste provided, with steamer connections, a speedy route for tourists visiting Egypt, and around the turn of the century the company was increasingly involved in Russia, establishing a through service from St Petersburg to Cannes in 1898, as well as providing some carriages on the Trans-Siberian Railways.  The first services to Copenhagen began in 1903 and when the Simplon Tunnel opened in 1906 the company began to work the Simplon Express from Paris, initially to Milan but from 1907 to Venice and from 1912 to Trieste. When Nagelmackers died in 1905 his company owned more than a thousand carriages. The company diversified in several directions. It managed the bar and refreshment facilities at the Paris Exhibition of 1900, and completed the Elysée Palace hotel just before the Exhibition opened. It also came to own the Hotel de la Plage at Ostend, the Bosphorus Summer Palace Hotel near Constantinople (Istanbul), the Grand Hotel des Wagons-Lits in Beijing, and the resort of Tatra-Lomnicz in the Carpathian Mountains.

During the First World War the Mitropa company, was set up to operate vehicles confiscated from the company in Germany and the Habsburg Empire. It provided competition in the 1920s and 30s, although the two firms reached a working agreement in 1925. An important innovation was the introduction in 1936 of the Night Ferry providing through sleeping cars between London and Paris via the Dover-Dunkirk train ferry. The service was resumed after the Second World War, carriages to and from Brussels were introduced in 1957, and it ceased operation in 1980.

After the Second World War the company could no longer operate east of the Iron Curtain. It operated fewer trains made up exclusively of its own vehicles but sleeping and restaurant car services continued. National railway companies were increasingly willing to co-operate in such ventures as the Trans-European Express network, which made the need for a trans-national company less obvious, and long-distance rail services of all sorts were increasingly subject to competition from airlines. In 1960 the company still had about 13,000 employees, with workshops in Paris, Ostend, Rome, Vienna, Munich, Athens, Irun, Madrid and Istanbul. The company was re-named the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et du Tourisme in 1967, and two years afterwards began to sell off its vehicles. Sleeping car services across Europe are now much reduced, but the company still operates, providing, amongst other services, catering facilities on Eurostar trains.