European Train History


The development of train travel in Europe proceeded in piecemeal fashion in individual countries beginning in the 19th century. Even though the goal of a unified European railway was present from the early days, such a system to serve all of Europe remains a work in progress.


Britain was a pioneer of train travel, which began when tram roads constructed with wooden rails were made to haul wagons filled with coal. By 1804, the first steam locomotive engine appeared, and steam haulage became a commercial success. The first public railway was the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825. A number of small railroad companies began services in subsequent decades, but there was no central railway until 1948, when nationalization resulted in the formation of British Railways. By the 1960s, diesel and electric trains replaced steam locomotives.

Orient Express

Agatha Christie’s impeccable fictional detective, Hercule Poirot, is perhaps the most famous among the fabled passengers of the luxurious Orient Express, and there were many, from tycoons to royalty. This elite train service, from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, was launched in 1883. The train trip through Central Europe lasted more than 80 hours.

King Of Trains

The Orient Express was the brainchild of a Belgian businessman, Georges Nagelmackers, who had witnessed the U.S. concept of sleeper cars during a visit to the United States in the 1860s, and he decided to adapt it for train travel in Europe. Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, which translates as “international company of sleeper-cars,” provided a standard of luxury that inspired the description “The King of Trains and the Train of Kings.” Compartments were private, with en suite bathrooms, silk sheets and wool blankets for the beds, comfortable leather armchairs, wood paneling and the finest cuisine. Ultimately, the original Orient Express service became too expensive to operate. However, its successor, the Simplon Orient Express, inaugurated in 1919, operated on a different route, from Switzerland and Italy via Venice, Trieste, Zagreb and Belgrade on to Istanbul.


Greece was among the last to inaugurate train services. In 1869, the Piraeus-Athens service opened, about 40 years after the commencement of train services in Britain. Differing political and economic goals stalled significant railway progress until 1916, when the Greek railroad system reached the Macedonian system, effectively adding Greece to the European international railway grid. In the 1950s, about 50 percent of Greek travelers took the train, but by 1967, their numbers had dwindled to just 4 percent. The mid-1990s saw a revival of railway transport.


More recent train history was made in 2007, when high-speed French and German trains inaugurated a new route between Frankfurt and Stuttgart in Germany and Paris. The trains traveled at speeds of up to 199 mph, shaving about two hours off the regular travel time for the 370-mile journey. This Germany-France segment is part of a long-range plan for a high-speed Spain-to-Hungary train route.

History Buffs

Founded in 1973, European Train Enthusiasts is a North American-based membership organization for anyone who is interested in the history of European rail systems.

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