Venice Simplon Orient Express

The early years


After the demise of the Night Ferry on the 31st of October 1980, it seemed that a dedicated through train and ship services between the UK and Continental Europe had now become extinct.

However, in the 1980's, the political regime in the UK took a severe lurch to starboard. The British Railways maritime operation, Sealink was assimilated by the Sea Containers Group and opportunities subsequently became accessible for private companies to operate train services. One of these operations, also a Sea Containers undertaking, was the Venice Simplon Orient Express or VSOE. Due to the presence of the English Channel, two separate trains were of course required.

The VSOE commenced operation on the 25th May 1982 and operated a twice a week service between London Victoria and Venice Santa Lucia Stations. The British train ran from London Victoria to Folkestone Harbour where passengers transferred onto a ship and their own exclusive lounge for the crossing to Boulogne Maritime. From here the Continental train departed for Paris and eventually to Venice.

Despite a misleading promotional poster published at the time, the passenger cars did not cross the English Channel on a train ferry. Only the Night Ferry did that. Like the Golden Arrow, which was ceased in 1972, the VSOE is two completely separate trains, the British Pullman set for daytime travel only and the Continental set comprising of restored CIWL Type Lx Sleeping Cars, a Service Car, a Pullman Lounge Car, a Restaurant Car, a Dining Car and a Bar Car.

The British train was usually hauled from London Victoria to Folkestone East by a Class 73 electro diesel. As a reversal of direction was required at Folkestone East, a Class 33 diesel electric was attached to the rear of the train and a cautious descent was made to Folkestone Harbour. Whilst the passengers alighted, both locos changed ends ready for the return working to London. On departure, the Class 33 would lead and the Class 73 push for the ascent back to Folkestone East. Here the Class 33 was detached, the train reversed and the Class 73 took the train back to London Victoria.

Meanwhile at Boulogne Maritime, a pair of SNCF Class 67 diesels brought in the Continental train from Amiens. The locos would then run around ready for the afternoon departure.

With the eventual opening of the Channel Tunnel and the closures of both Folkestone Harbour and Boulogne Maritime Stations, the operation across the English Channel has changed significantly and not for the better. Passengers now have to alight from the UK train at Folkestone West and transfer onto road buses, yes buses and travel through the Channel Tunnel on board a bus incarcerated within a commercial freight vehicle carrying shuttle train. On reaching France the buses resume their journey to Calais Ville Station where passengers alight and board the VSOE Continental train.

How much more convenient for customers it would be today if the Continental train departed from London St. Pancras direct to mainland Europe? Once the Channel Tunnel and the Continental loading gauge line had been opened, there is no sensible reason for this not being the situation. Also, there is no logical reason why the British Pullman Car train should not run directly from London through the Channel Tunnel to Paris. That truly would be a 21st Century Golden Arrow right on target.

No doubt because of the present day petty politics of fragmented rail privatisation, dubious information on available line capacity, compatibility of signalling equipment and autocratic rulings by over zealous (you can't do that) Health & Safety minions, they will ensure that direct train services from around the UK to a multitude of European destinations will never materialise. If it is considered unsafe to allow Pullman and CIWL cars through the Channel Tunnel because of a perceived fire risk concerning the marquetry within the cars then why is it deemed acceptable to have shuttle trains carrying people enclosed in automobiles filled with petrol and diesel?

Note that the Venice Simplon Orient Express is still in operation today.

The images shown were taken on a number of different occasions between 1984 and 1990.

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The United Kingdom train.

The passenger reception facility adjacent to Platform 8 at London Victoria Station. Ironically, until 1972 the Golden Arrow service between London and Paris departed from this platform. The Golden Arrow, just like the VSOE was two separate trains, the passenger cars did not cross the Channel on a train ferry. Only the Night Ferry did that.

The VSOE ready for departure. The Mk.1 Brake Second Corridor car has facilities for the guard and for passengers' checked luggage.

The Venice Simplon Orient Express ready to depart Platform 8 at London Victoria with a Class 73 electro diesel in charge.  At Platform 6 stands what was the best and most comfortable BR built Southern Region Electric Multiple Unit, the 4CEP. That is until they were refurbished in the 1980's when the seating was downgraded to commuter style seating.

At Folkestone East, a Class 33 diesel electric locomotive attached to the rear of the VSOE and a careful descent was made to Folkestone Harbour.

Approaching Folkestone Harbour, the VSOE crosses on what at one time was an opening swing bridge.

Having arrived at Folkestone Harbour the Class 33 was detached from the train.

At this time a converted Mk.1 Brake Second Corridor carriage was included for the convenience of the staff.

An ex LNER Full Brake was provided for the carriage of passengers' luggage.

Passengers have now alighted for the short walk to board the ferry for Boulogne.

Once the locomotives had been detached from the train, they exchanged ends. The Class 73 heads for the seaward end of the station.

Once the Class 73 has cleared the line, the Class 33 repositions to the front ready to lead back up the incline to Folkestone East.

Pullman Car Minerva is slightly different in that it has the facility for the guard to be able to look out.

Both locomotives have to work hard to lift the heavy train up the Folkestone Harbour incline.

The Class 73 provides much needed assistance on the ascent.

At the sidings at Folkestone East the Class 33 is detached and the Class 73 is ready to return the VSOE to London.

The VSOE at speed passes Ashford Station.

Passing through Ashford Station whilst a stalwart Class 4CEP waits for a clear line.

When not on the London to Folkestone run the UK train may be seen on other services as here at Southampton. This is no doubt a run celebrating the Bournemouth Belle, a Pullman train which once ran between London and Bournemouth until 1967.

The Continental train.

On the approaches to Boulogne Maritime Station the Continental train completes its travels from Venice.

Overnight passenger accommodation is provided by restored CIWL Type Lx Sleeping Cars.

Although matching with the sleeping cars this vehicle, 3915 is a service car for the use of the staff.

Towards the centre of the VSOE consist are four cars for the provision of sustenance. The first one, 4110 is a Restaurant Car.

The second of the set, 4141 is a Pullman Car.

The third car, 4095 is a Dining and Kitchen Car.

Completing the set is 3674, the Bar Car and no doubt much appreciated during the journey.

The Sleeping Cars are arranged on either side of the four Pullman Cars. This is Lx Sleeping Car 3544.

Once the consist had been serviced and watered the VSOE departs for Venice. Despite the line between Boulogne Maritime and Amiens being relatively level, two SNCF Class 67 locomotives are provided.

It can be seen just why two locomotives are allocated to the VSOE for the run to Amiens. There are 11 Lx Sleeping Cars, a Staff Service Car, a Restaurant Car, a Pullman Car, a Dining and Kitchen Car and a Bar Car in the consist weighing in at approximately 850 tons.