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Jack Birns photographs the Simplon Orient Express in 1950, part 2: France

Voyager en Wagons-Lits

On the platform at Calais Maritime | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

On the second stage of his journey with the Simplon Orient Express in the spring of 1950, LIFE photographer Jack Birns set foot in France.

The Channel ferry from Folkestone moored at the quay of Calais Maritime, where the through-carriages to the Balkans were waiting. It was here the journey really began.

In the evening the train reached Paris, where Jack Birns photographed Gare de Lyon by night. The rest of France was traversed while the passengers slept comfortably in the familiar blue Wagons-Lits cars. Only a few fellow passengers would make the entire trip to Istanbul.

by Arjan den Boer

Disembarkment of SS Canterbury at Calais Maritime | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

The original railway station was designed in 1889 by architect Sidney Dunnett.
It was bombed several times during the Second World War because of its strategic importance.

Calais Maritime railway station, c. 1900 | Photochrom, Detroit Publishing Company/Library of Congress

Calais Maritime

Calais Maritime railway station was built in the 19th century to accommodate the passengers taking the Channel boats to England. The railway line was extended from Calais-Ville station to the harbour. The grand railway station and adjacent Terminus Hotel were destroyed during the Second World War.

After the war, the railway station was provisionally restored. On Jack Birns' photographs only a few platforms bordering directly on the quay are visible. It wasn't until 1956 that Calais Maritime got a new, simple station building.

English lady and conducteur at Calais Maritime station | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Film Golden Arrow

Starting Point

Trains for Paris, such as the luxury Fleche d'Or, departed from Calais Maritime. It was also the starting point of international trains like the Simplon Orient Express. Through-carriages with various destinations were combined until Paris, where they were linked up to the different trains.

In 1995, Calais Maritime was closed. The Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel departs from Calais-Fréthun station.

The Eurostar enters the Eurotunnel, 1995 | Photo: Ch. Recoura/La Vie du Rail/Photorail The Eurostar enters the Eurotunnel, 1995 | Photo: Ch. Recoura/La Vie du Rail/Photorail
Carriage with Wagons-Lits emblem | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950 Wagons-Lits emblem | Photo: flickr/ CC-BY-NC


The Simplon Orient Express and other sleeper trains were operated by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. The Belgian entrepreneur George Nagelmackers founded the company in 1876. He had travelled the U.S. in Pullman sleeping cars and spotted a gap in the European market. During the Belle Époque and the interwar period, Wagons-Lits carried those who could afford it in great luxury throughout Europe — and beyond.

After the Second World War, Wagons-Lits reached out to a wider audience by introducing a tourist class. The company gradually became an inexpensive carrier of migrants and hippies, while the elite took the airplane.

Poster by Guy Georget, 1950 | Collection Arjan den Boer

A 1950 Wagons-Lits poster is clearly more sober than pre-war posters. It promoted travelling by sleeping car and was issued in several languages.

The poster was designed by Guy Georget (1911-1992). He also worked for Air France and Philips. Best known was his 1960 logo for the French postal service.

Panorama Gare de Lyon

Gare de Lyon

Gare de Lyon is one of six major railway station termini in Paris. It was built for the 1900 World's Fair with a design by architect Marius Toudoire.

The station building was commissioned by the Compagnie des Chemins de fer de Paris à Lyon et à la Méditerranée (PLM), which operated trains to Lyon and Marseille.

Tour de l'horloge Gare de Lyon, 2011 | flickr/ CC-NC-SA

From Gare de Lyon...

  • the first Simplon Express left for Italy in 1906, which route was later extended to the Simplon Orient Express
  • the renowned Blue Train was inaugurated in 1922
  • the last train to Istanbul departed in 1977, then named Direct Orient Express
  • the first TGV high-speed train ran in 1981.
Le Train Bleu restaurant at Gare de Lyon, 2012 | Photo: Arjan den Boer
Gare de Lyon with restaurant | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

The restaurant at the Gare de Lyon, still without the name Le Train Bleu, can be seen on Jack Birns' photographs. It is unknown whether Birns dined there.

Le Train Bleu

In 1922 a new Wagons-Lits train departed from the Gare de Lyon to the French Riviera, known as Le Train Bleu.

Instead of teak carriages the train consisted of steel sleeping cars, painted navy blue. The interior was equally luxurious, decorated with marquetry.

These S-type cars soon became typical for Wagons-Lits and the Simplon Orient Express. Jack Birns travelled in carriage 3314, built in 1926, which had since lost some of its sheen.

The Gare de Lyon station restaurant, opened in 1901, was named after the famous blue train in 1963. Even today the neo-baroque interior still has the atmosphere of the Belle Époque.

Passengers board at Gare de Lyon | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Departure of a TGV, Gare de Lyon, 2012 | Photo: Arjan den Boer

En Voiture!

Passengers were welcomed by train staff, who helped them with their luggage.
The latter is a rarity nowadays for passengers of the TGV's to Southern France and the Alps, which now depart from the Gare de Lyon.

U.S. couriers Bill Croasdale and Dick Ficken handling a diplomatic sack | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950 Advertisement for the Simplon Orient Express, c. 1950 | Collection Arjan den Boer


Around 1950, Wagons-Lits and the French railways advertised for American tourists. Maybe they hoped to attract a new influx of rich people to help restore the pre-war luxury. Americans were also interested in Europe because of the U.S. forces stationed there and because of the Marshall Plan, which was partly devoted to railways.

Ads celebrated the colourful European civilizations and the long list of VIPs who travelled the Simplon Orient Express. But in fact celebrities no longer used this train after the war. In reality American tourists rarely traveled beyond Italy. Because of the Cold War they were not that welcome in the Balkans. During Birns' trip the only fellow Americans were diplomatic couriers.


The Simplon Orient Express left from platform C at 23:15. The display listed the main stops from Vallorbe at the Swiss border to Istanbul.

The train consisted of four sleeping cars, a dining car, five day coaches and two luggage vans. During the journey the train composition was frequently changed.

The Pershing type 140 steam engine was built in the U.S. shortly after the First World War for PLM, one of the railway companies that became part of the national SNCF in 1938.

Platform C, Gare de Lyon, 2012 | Photo: Arjan den Boer
S.O.E. departure platform at Gare de Lyon | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

By Night, by Day

Wagons-Lits sleeping cars had a daytime and a nighttime setup. During the day passengers were seated on a comfortable couch, which was converted by the conductor into a regular-sized bed at night.

First-class travellers had their own sink cabinet with hot and cold running water. There were no showers and toilets had to be shared; modern-day travellers would probably not consider this luxurious.

During the overnight trip from Paris to the Swiss border, the steam locomotive was temporarily substituted by an electric one between Laroche-Migennes and Dijon, though sleeping passengers would not have noticed.

Illustration from Comfortable Travel in Europe, c. 1950 | Collection Arjan den Boer
Shaving passenger in sleeping car | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Wagons-Lits conductor Alfredo Piccinini | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950
Reading passenger in sleeping car (daytime setup) | Photo: Jack Birns, 1950

Photo Treasure

Jack Birns took about 1750 photos ​​during his trip. Only 30 were published in LIFE (11 September 1950). The others were revealed when Google digitized the LIFE photo archives. The photos were only tagged Simplon Orient Express, Jack Birns and dated 6 June 1950 — perhaps the date of record. But the contents show that the photos were taken in late April or early May 1950.

There are no place names in the digital archive. Prior to this series of retours, shooting locations had to be identified for the many photos; a time-consuming task. In some cases station names were visible, in other instances Google Earth or archival materials proved helpful. Ultimately, the locations of most of the pictures have been identified.

Jack Birns photographs the Simplon Orient Express in 1950



[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.

Behrend, George Luxury Trains. From the Orient Express to the TGV. New York 1982.

Sölch, Werner Orient-Express. Glanzzeit und Niedergang eines Luxuszuges Düsseldorf 1974.

Online Sources

LIFE photo archive hosted by Google

Port of Calais: History

Vintage European Posters: Guy Georget