Almost halfway between London and Istanbul, the Simplon Orient Express traversed Italy, the fourth of eight countries LIFE photographer Jack Birns depicted in the spring of 1950.
While the azure Lake Maggiore passed by, passengers enjoyed a freshly prepared meal in the dining car. Under the impressive canopy of Milan central station, Birns had a photo shoot with a Wagons-Lits conductor. Meanwhile fellow traveler Bill Croasdale was busy delivering diplomatic bags. At the Allied-controlled border city of Trieste the train was reduced to only two carriages.
by Arjan den Boer
Domodossola is the first major railway station after the Swiss border. At every border the locomotive had to be exchanged. This did not take place in the tiny border hamlet of Iselle, because the Simplon line to Domodossola was constructed by the Swiss railways.
The overhead wire voltage differed from the Italian system, so it was not until Domodossola that the train was connected to an Italian locomotive. The connecting railway to Milan had been electrified since 1947.
The E.428 type locomotive was built between 1939 and 1943. It had a streamlined front, typical of the third production series. Its top speed was 150 km/h.
The locomotive is depicted on a 1946 poster for manufacturer Ansaldo. We can see similar posters on Birns's photos inside the Simplon Orient Express dining car.
For passengers the change of locomotive in Domodossola was an opportunity to exchange currency and buy reading materials and refreshments.
Wicker bottles of wine were in high demand with a group of young Swiss vacationers, who were the merrymakers on the train according to the LIFE report.
Domodossola became an international railway station in 1906 when the Simplon tunnel was opened. The station building dates from the same year. Nowadays it is still an important border station for freight transport with a new terminal called Domo II.
Between Domodossola and Milan the railway line runs right along Lake Maggiore, a major tourist attraction. Since the end of the nineteenth century, luxury hotels and villas were built here for the European elite.
The famous Isola Bella can be seen from the train. Jack Birns took a photo of the Baveno church tower from the window. At Stresa he left the train to photograph the railway line, the lake and the Regina Palace Hotel.
In addition to its sleeping cars, Wagons-Lits was renowned for its dining cars which were every bit as good as fine restaurants. Although the luxury of the interwar period had faded, in 1950 full meals with good wines were still served at fully-set tables. This was accomplished by a seven man brigade, with three of them working in the kitchen.
Passengers could expect a meal prepared by the cook using fresh ingredients. Even potatoes were peeled on the spot. The galley had a large coal-fired stove and a wall of refrigerators. These were cooled by blocks of ice that were replaced at major stations, where new food supplies were also provided. Only in the late sixties Wagons-Lits introduced prefabricated meals.
Traveling through Italy, passengers enjoyed the good food while it lasted: Wagons-Lits had lost its dining car concession in Yugoslavia to local caterers — according to LIFE with 'disastrous digestive results'.
The international clientele in the dining cars required a lot of bookkeeping and calculations. Passengers could pay in U.S. dollars, British pounds, Swiss and French francs, Italian lira and Wagons-Lits meal coupons. For each payment a receipt was issued.
The impressive steel canopy of Milan station consists of five arches, which increase in size towards the center. With a covered area of 6,600 m2 it is still the largest canopy of Italy. In 1929 the construction was facilitated by factory-applied hinges. The canopy was the main construction of engineer Alberto Fava (1877-1952).
The Milan station building opened in 1931, but had been long in the making. Already in 1912 architect Ulisse Stacchini had won the design contest. He had taken the Union Station in Washington D.C. as inspiration. Because of World War I the execution phase was greatly delayed.
During the reign of Mussolini the design was adapted to new requirements. The result was a blend of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and fascism.
While passengers are alighting from the train, U.S. courier Bill Croasdale is waiting for vice-consul J. Raymond Baine, who moments later will collect a diplomatic bag from the train window.
A vendor is providing coffee to the passengers of a Hungarian coach that travels along for part of the journey.
At Milan, the Wagons-Lits carriages are getting a cleanup, which is quite necessary after a day's journey from Calais.
Passengers are saying goodbye at a first class day coach from the French railways that will travel to Istanbul along with the sleeping car.
At Milan railway station Jack Birns made an extensive photo series of a Wagons-Lits conductor. He was a 56-year old Italian called Alfredo Piccinini, who was on duty from Calais to Trieste. The number of stripes on his chest shows how long he had worked for Wagons-Lits: over 25 years.
The uniforms were chocolate brown. On the collar there was a number, which passengers could write down if they had any complaints. Each sleeping car had its dedicated conductor who welcomed the passengers, converted the couches into beds at night and collected travel documents for border controls. Wagons-Lits conductors had to speak at least three languages.
After Milan, the journey continued via Venice to the border city of Trieste. The only photos that Birns made in Venice were taken at nighttime from the railway station, where the courier Croasdale was delivering another diplomatic mailbag.
Of the thirty pictures printed in LIFE there were no less than three of diplomatic couriers. It was an adventurous job during the Cold War that matched the image of the Orient Express. This is also evident in popular films from 1948 and 1952.
It was not just fiction: in February 1950, the U.S. naval attaché Eugene Karpe died under suspicious circumstances by falling from the Orient Express near Salzburg.
In 1950, the harbor city of Trieste was a diplomatic hornet's nest. Both Italy and Yugoslavia claimed the city and its region. From 1947 to 1954 it was a neutral city-state under the UN protection, divided into two zones. Zone A was under Allied supervision, while Zone B was under Yugoslav control.
No less than 5,000 U.S. and 5,000 British soldiers were stationed in Zone A.
At Trieste central station Jack Birns photographed TRUST soldiers (Trieste United States Troops). A communications room (RTO - Radio Telephone Operator) was located at the station.
The Simplon Orient Express was not one single train, but a complex combination of trough-carriages with numerous destinations. Only a few cars travelled all the way from Calais to Istanbul. Most were attached and detached en route, coming from or going elsewhere. Locomotives were exchanged at borders and at electrified sections.
A diagram in Jack Birns's and Roy Rowan's report shows a total of sixteen places were the train composition was changed. After Trieste the train was reduced to one sleeping car, one first class day coach and a luggage van. Only seven passengers ventured into the Balkans with Birns.
[Rowan, Roy (correspondent) and Birns, Jack (photographer)] LIFE rides the Simplon-Orient Express. Europe's most famous train has lost its luxery but kept its air of intrigue. LIFE september 11, 1950 p. 137.
Coudert, Gerard, Knepper, Maurice et Toussirot, Pierre-Yves La Compagnie des Wagons-Lits Paris 2009.
Zizza-Lalu, Eve-Marie Au bon temps des Wagons-Restaurants Paris 2012.