The Origins of Long Distance Travel

The origins of sleeping cars with a degree of luxury on rails is attributed to one man, George Mortimer Pullman born in 1831 in Brockton, USA. Although not the only man to produce and run Sleeping cars in the USA, he was definitely the most successful, building more than 30,000 cars, buying out most of his competitors and even building the town of Pullman to house his employees.

In the old countries of Europe, railway systems were not as advanced. Many countries had laid tracks, but as most countries viewed their neighbour with suspicion Usually the tracks did not connect, frequently being of different gauge, incompatible brake systems or having buffers that would interlock on the curves. This was all deliberate to frustrate the neighbour's attempts to invade and if they did, then the railway equipment was useless to them back home.

In 1870 George Pullman visited Britain. During the visit he arranged with the forward thinking Midland Railway company to supply Pullman cars in kit form to run on the Midland Railway, one such car 'Midland' still exists although in rather derelict state at the Midland Railway Centre at Butterley.

 Pullman Car 'Midland' Conserved at MRC, Butterly Pullman Car 'Midland' Conserved at MRC, Butterly Pullman Car 'Midland' Conserved at MRC, Butterly Pullman Car 'Midland' Conserved at MRC, Butterly Pullman Car 'Midland' Conserved at MRC, Butterly

Photographs depicting the Pullman car, as it is today, at the Midland Railway Centre, Butterly. The car is to be conserved rather than restored to keep the original timber work. Only the coach body remains, the bogies and draw gear no longer exist. The body is currently mounted on a flat bed wagon. As was standard American practice the bodywork structure was also its strength as it did not have a separate chassis, the timber work being braced with tensioned iron truss rods. One such rod can be clearly seen on the second picture. As these cars ran in trains with coaches with the traditional steel chassis and matchwood bodies, in the event of an accident the Pullman cars were far safer for its occupants but acted like a battering ram with the other coaches, destroying their feeble structures.

George Nagelmackers

George Lambert Casimir Nagelmackers, founder of the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons-Lits (CIWL), was born in the Belgium city of Liege in 1845. He was the Jewish son of wealthy Bankers and was a trained engineer. Many of the powerful European Bankers were Jews who in general had an international outlook and invested heavily in Railways, notably the Rothschild family of Germany, whose sons established such railways as the French Nord and the Nord Belge while also supporting the Paris, Lyons and Mediterranee Railway and in North Africa Railways in Algeria.

The first international train service was not founded by CIWL, as is often stated. It is also unlikely that the principal influence of George Nagelmackers was his visit to the USA in 1869 when he travelled in Pullman cars. By this time he would have been well aware of the international train service steaming through his home town of Liege. This International train served Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland was founded in 1865 by the Est Railway Company of France.

CIWL was established on the 1st Oct 1872 with Nagelmackers as the sole director. Prior to this, on his return from the USA and his study of the Pullman car system (Although George Behrend, author of many books on CIWL, states from his research he did not meet Pullman) he published a paper on the 20th April 1870 called "Project d'Installation de wagons-lits sur les chemins de fer du continent" (Project for the installation of sleeping cars on the railways of the Continent). Unfortunately to date I have been unable to establish the content of this document. It is therefore likely that the influences at play in the founding of the company was the Est Railway company having established an International train, the luxury of the Pullman cars and the personal advantage of being a son of a powerful European Banker and the associated connections between the banks of Europe and the railways.

The Beginning of Services

The company was not an instant success. Strife in Europe prevent his first projected service from taking place, leaving the company with 5 new four wheel sleeping cars and no work. Although contracts were signed for an Oostende to Cologne service and also an Oostende - Berlin service involving the ordering of a further 14 sleeping cars, this time 6 wheelers, it appears that delays in ratification between railway companies prevented services starting when they should have done.

A number of trial services did operate but were terminable without notice and while the passengers appreciated the services, this was not always the case for the railway companies, who tended to view the carriages as being too heavy for the limited passenger carrying capacity. It would appear the bank withdrew their support resulting in real financial difficulties for the company. (I would like to see some original documentation to this effect, as I am not totally persuaded a family bank would act in this way over such a short period of time. Perhaps there are other influences. Was the company really in trouble or did it simply want to expand faster than its banks thought wise?)

On the 4th Jan 1873 a rather "colourful" American named Colonel Mann took over the company, although Nagelmackers remained on the Board. A third director named Forbes also joined. The company was now named ‘Mann's Railway Sleeping Carriage Co. Ltd.’ (The original name was also retained to protect existing contracts).

Many books write plenty about Colonel Mann and certainly his money was a convenient asset at the time. This very dubious character soon lost interest in the company and resigned his position in the company on the 31st August 1875 leaving the running of it to Nagelmackers. On the 4th December 1876 Nagelmackers brought out Colonel Mann for two million dollars and the company reverted entirely to its former title of ‘Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits’ with King Leopold II of the Belgium's as head of its list of investors.

The director with rather more lasting influence in the success of the company was Forbes, also the director of the Dutch-Rhenish Railway and General Manager of the London, Chatham & Dover Railway (LC&DR), latterly the Managing Director. This resulted in two Mann's Sleeping cars being built by the LC&DR with one running on the Great Northern in 1873 and the North British Railway services fromLondon Kings Cross to Edinburgh. This was car no 42 with 12 berths. Car No.43 ran on the LC&DR and was the first saloon and seated 20, connecting with the continental Mann cars now running from Oostende. However Pullman had now got an agreement with the Midland Railway and was to establish quickly resulting in the termination of Mann activities in the UK. (Until CIWL became majority shareholders in the Pullman Car company in the UK). Critically important to the long term health of the company was that Forbes was able to give CIWL its first 10 year contract, giving the stability necessary to attract long term investment.

Expansion across Europe

With Pullman established in the UK and CIWL in parts of Europe the battle was now on to establish services with exclusive contracts. Pullman succeeded in Italy but other than the UK was not able to establish a foothold in the rest of Europe. Pullman attempted to buy out CIWL in 1882 but failed, and eventually was ousted from Italy also.

George Nagelmackers continued to introduce new services across Europe. Notably in 1879 P&O started a 60 year association with Wagons-Lits to work the sleeping cars in the Indian Mail. By 1879 CIWL had 75 cars and were enjoying success; however they were limited by the number of cars they could attach to the railway companies’ trains. This lead Nagelmackers to consider trains composed entirely of his own coaches.

Until 1881 CIWL had only constructed and operated sleeping cars, now in 1881 the company ordered its first Dinning car, No.107. Pullman quickly spotted an opportunity to offer Dinning Cars in Europe and succeeded in getting one to Paris. CIWL responded quickly and rapidly had three more built. The main purpose of the Dinning cars was to cut out stops; this was not principally for the benefit of the travelling passengers but to speed the Mail across Europe. Fast passage of Mail were the railway companies’ number one concern. In some cases the Royal Mail were able to restrict or even exclude passenger accommodation from being attached to the train. This consideration was also important in trying to limit the weight of the carriages in the first instance. In the case of the Indian Mail the service ran according to the time that the Mail Ship arrived. Passengers had to wait until the Mail was loaded.

CIWL services continued to expand across Europe, Pullman continued to try and get a foothold aided and abetted by the Thomas Cook Company, the travel agent based in Peterborough. They had felt threatened by Wagons-Lits who, since the early days, had established a travel agency in tandem with the Sleeping Car operation.

The Orient Express and Other Named Expresses

Many people around the world today are unfamiliar with the company of Wagons-Lits but many have heard of its most famous service: The Orient Express. Alas it is no more, the remnant having completed its final run in 2009 and the famous name has finally disappeared from the International railway timetable. This service is not to be confused with the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, this being a cruise train and not a service train, which thankfully continues to run with the splendidly restored Wagons-Lits cars.

The Orient Express was the dream of George Nagelmackers, a train to run from Paris to Constantinople. Initially he called it the ‘Express d' Orient’ and it involved a contract being drawn up with eight different railway operations, this was achieved in Constantinople in February 1883 and the first service train ran on June 5th 1883. The service proved to be a great success , for the service new sleeping cars (121 - 126 ) and a new Dinning car (151) were built. For the first time these were bogie cars. For more information on the Orient Express click here.

Many new services were inaugurated including in 1885 another famous service, the Calais-Mediterranee Express, forerunner to the Train Bleu.

CIWL buying out British Pullman Ltd.

Pullman finally gave up any ideas on running services in Europe, sold the Italian Pullman cars and withdrew to England. Pullman died in 1887. The British Pullman Ltd (being separate from the American company but still owned by them) was then run by the trustees of his estate.

George Nagelmackers continued to expand his empire, providing boat trains in France to meet the Transatlantic liners. The Sud Express and Nord Express, inaugurated in 1896 and then in 1898 began with services in Russia and Egypt. Nagelmacker’s son Rene married Davidson Dalziel's daughter in 1903, Dalziel's joined the Wagons-Lits Board while George Nagelmackers died suddenly in 1905 at the age of 60.

Dalziel's began to negotiate the purchase of the British Pullman Car company from the Executors of Pullman and concluded successfully in 1906. Dalziel's then granted the right to use the name Pullman to Wagons-Lits anywhere in Europe, excluding Britain, and Egypt.

Nagelmackers not only had occupied himself with the establishment of train services across Europe, but also involved himself with the provision of hotels for his passengers, the first of which, The Avendia Palace in Lisbon, was opened in 1891, followed by one in Nice in 1893. This was followed by many more in various locations across the continent. In 1894 CIWL formed the ‘Compagnie Internationale des Grand Hotels’. This organisation took over the CIWL hotels as well as purchasing existing high class hotels and building new ones.

Luxury Trains

During the 1890’s Wagons-Lits expanded in all directions, but the main focus of operation was on the trains deluxe. These special trains, the true 1st Class of European railway travel, multiplied and connected most of the principal cities of Europe. The rich and famous were most appreciative of the great advancement in the comfort and speed of rail travel provided by Wagons-Lits. The first journey of the Siberian Express commenced on the 3rd December 1898 taking 6 nights to reach its destination.

The First World War and the Armistice

The 1914 - 18 war played havoc to the services of Wagons-Lits and with the revolution in Russia the company lost a great number of its cars. The German Railways, having seized Wagons-Lits vehicles, allowed German railway companies to establish new services using the Wagons-Lits cars. The French army requisitioned many cars for use in ambulance trains and also for use as headquarters trains. Wagons-Saloon No.2419, having been specially converted by Wagons-Lits, was added to Marshal Foch's head quarters train. The requisitioned coach No. 2419 then secured its place in history as the coach in which the Germans signed The Armistice in the Forest of Compiegne. Following its de-requisitioned the coach was given to the French Government for display, initially in Paris and later in a purpose built display house in the Forest of Compiegne.

Forrest Clearing at Compiegne

The Forest clearing at Compiegne where the armistice was signed, although at this time it was thick forest with two adjacent tracks used for rail mounted guns. Marshal Fochs train of Wagons-Lits being on one track, the Germans in French carriages on the other connected with duck boards as the ground was swampy.

Portion of the plaque from the original coach which was subsequently destroyed by the Germans during the 2nd World War.

Portion of the plaque from the original coach which was subsequently destroyed by the Germans during the 2nd World War.

The rebuilt museum building to the original design in which the substitute coach is displayed.

The rebuilt museum building to the original design in which the substitute coach is displayed.

Armistice Car 

Coach VR 24** currently displayed in place of the original VR2419.

After World War l, Wagons-Lits recovered most of its standard gauge cars except some which had been sold to Mitropa. However almost all the Russian cars were lost including 198 sleeping cars, 51 Dinning cars and 12 Fourgons.

The Heyday of Wagons Lits in the Inter-War Years

In the years prior to World War II, to keep pace with the introduction of new services, many new cars were built. These were all Teak bogie cars, until the 1920’s when there was a transition to all steel cars. The first batch of 40 were built in England by Leeds Forge in 1921 and were classed as Type S . The fact that so many of the new steel cars were built in England probably had much to do with the influence of Dalziel and the attractive payment terms that could be achieved from the British companies, paying for the cars over a good number of years. The main reason for this change to steel was regulations by the French Railways who considered wooden cars to be insufficiently safe.

Early steel cars, in this case VR2975 and 2750, although the picture taken when the cars were around 45 years old.

Early steel cars, in this case VR2975 and 2750, although the picture taken when the cars were around 45 years old.

The heyday of Wagons-Lits was during the inter-war years, although the great depression did affect it, many new cars were built and services up rated, including the introduction of the Pullman services and the very ambitious Night Ferry Service in conjunction with the Southern Railway Company in the UK, connecting London and Paris with direct sleeping cars, transferred by ferry overnight. See the Night Ferry Page for more details.

The well known colours of Wagons-Lits: dark blue with the gold lining, were introduced with the new steel cars and remained unchanged throughout the life of all Wagons-Lits cars with the exception of the Pullmans, the later P class stainless steel sleeping cars and Egyptian cars. Some teak Dinning cars were also painted into the Blue colours to match the new steel cars as the first steel dinning cars were not ready until 1925, again these were mainly British built to take advantage of better terms.

The most prestigious train to commence service or rather renamed was the Train Bleu, conveying the rich and famous to the Mediterranean, this service used the majestic steel sleeping cars with fine marquetry by the best designers and craftsmen of the day. Not everything was plain sailing during the inter-war years, cars took a long time to be returned from Germany and the MITROPA Company became serious competition in many areas.

The Pullman Car Company in Britain implemented new services particularly to channel ports, to satisfy the cross channel traveller, Wagons-Lits purchased identical Pullman cars for the service to Paris even to the extent of painting them umber and cream. The service being the Golden Arrow and was the most prestigious railway service in both Britain and the Continent. It was very easy for such cooperation between the two companies as the chairman of both companies was the same man, Dalziel.

Wagons-Lits Pullman car built for the Golden Arrow / Fleche d'Or service, this car being displayed in the French Railway Museum at Mulhouse.

Wagons-Lits Pullman car built for the Golden Arrow / Fleche d'Or service, this car being displayed in the French Railway Museum at Mulhouse.