Not surprisingly, an era of instant gratification and digitally conscripted realities has reduced the demand for a mode of travel distinguished by its leisurely pace and breathtaking natural scenery. As a result, many excellent rail services have faltered or failed in the new millennium.
Notable exceptions have been the Venice-Simplon-Orient Express (VSOE) and the British Pullman, two vintage luxury rail services whose immense success has been uninterrupted since their 1982 inaugurations. Even today, despite vastly expanded routes and schedules, popular journeys on these trains sell out months, if not years, in advance.
Both lines are owned and operated by Belmond Ltd., a premium hospitality company that caters ingeniously to the hedonistic and performative tendencies of the Information Age by advertising some of the most glamorous, envy-inducing, and Instagram-worthy rail journeys imaginable.
While the VSOE is the more famous of the two, the British Pullman is frequently the better train to journey on.
The VSOE is an attractive facsimile of the bygone era it emulates; however, it is neither a revival nor a continuation of the historic Orient Express, which ceased all remaining operations in December 2009In fact, besides its self-selected title, the VSOE is not related to the real Orient Express at all.
VSOE's ability to operate under a variation of the historical train's name, as well as to display the iconic crest of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (CIWL)—the famed parent company of the original Orient Express—are stipulated in Belmond's long-standing agreement with France's national state rail service, SNCF, which holds the rights to the "Orient Express" trademark.
Even the VSOE's restored carriages, while authentic CIWL Pullmans, are a partial truth at best. Purchased at auction in the 1980s, they are all LX-type cars: a wider, more spacious model developed after World War I.
Given their relative newness, these carriages are unlikely to have ever appeared on the Orient Express or its sister line, the Taurus Express, both of which used S- and Z-type cars almost exclusively.
Ironically, while none of the VSOE's own cars have any connection to the Orient Express, one of the British Pullman's does.
Car Ibis, completed in 1925, once plied the Milan-Venice section of the historic train's Simplon route.
Furthermore, due to the international status of the VSOE, almost all of its routes are subject to unpredictable disruptions, truncations, and cancellations.
For instance, since the 1990s, VSOE journeys from London have followed the historic Golden Arrow route from Victoria Station via the Channel Tunnel beneath the Strait of Dover, transferring onto the VSOE at Paris for their journey across continental Europe. Fittingly, this journey was carried out by none other than the British Pullman.
Unfortunately, as a result of complications arising from Brexit, this route was abruptly discontinued in 2022 and showed no sign of returning.
Now, instead of boarding the breathtaking British Pullman and connecting at historic Gare de l'Est in Paris, VSOE passengers in London are shunted onto the Eurostar for a decidedly less glamorous trip to Lille, an industrial city in the north of France. The most distinctive drawback to the VSOE, though, is its sheer expense. While Belmond implies that its cost continues the original train's tradition of lavish exclusivity, this stretches the truth past the breaking point.
Despite the storied luxury of its first-class carriages, the true Orient Express was, for the vast majority of its operational years, a public passenger rail service. Tickets from Paris to Istanbul on any of its three main routes sold for about 586 gold francs: about $25.00 by today's standards.
The VSOE, by contrast, was developed in 1982 for the sole purpose of transporting luxury tourists around Western Europe, running mostly ahistorical fragments of the Orient Express's former route.
While it does offer a once-yearly recreation of the classic Paris-Istanbul journey, a single ticket for the same starts at about $57,000—almost 2300 times more expensive than the historic original.
In all of these respects, the British Pullman fares better.
Operating exclusively in England, its domestic and comparatively succinct routes are much more reliable, with unique destination and journey pairings that, unlike the VSOEs, cannot be so easily replicated by independent travelers on existing regional railways.
From March to December, it follows a vast, labyrinthine network of interlinked routes between many of England's oldest and most iconic cities.
With daylong tours that emphasize local culture, gourmet dining, and the richly storied history of each city it visits, the British Pullman also benefits from a more genuine connection to the railways on which it operates.
Unlike the loosely connected patchwork of journeys offered by VSOE, its routes reflect an intimate knowledge of and appreciation for the landscape and lore of Great Britain.
Best of all, the British Pullman offers its range of similarly extravagant journeys at a far more affordable rate than the VSOE. On all but its most sought-after specialty routes, British Pullman tickets start around $490—or about $2,000.00 less than any VSOE trip.
While this amount remains anything but modest, the British Pullman more than earns this asking price in its abundant amenities and sheer vintage luxe, including multi-course meals prepared by Michelin chefs, finely aged wines and gourmet coffees, bespoke silver table service, and private guided tours,
Additional amenities can be purchased on request, including private seating and bottomless champagne service in one of the two coupés in the dreamlike Cygnus carriage, recently re-designed with characteristic whimsy by the legendary Wes Anderson.
$500 for a single trip has seldom been so worth it.