Photograph: Yasin Akgül/AFP/Getty Images
When the Orient Express began operating in the 19th century, passports were optional – the only documentation British travelers required was a copy of Thomas Cook’s Continental Timetable.
But Brexit and 21st century biometric controls are killing the romance of border crossing for modern passengers seeking the nostalgia of the luxury train ride that inspired Agatha Christie and Hollywood.
Belmond, the company that operates today’s Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE), has decided to abandon the London to Folkestone route because it has become too difficult to cross the border to Calais.
Until now, passengers have been able to travel in art deco carriages on the British Pullman service from London Victoria Station to Folkestone. There they board carriages to cross the English Channel to meet Belmond’s Continental Train at Calais, then, as night falls, dress for dinner; a compartment in one of the 1929 classic cars costs £3,530 to £10,100 per person, so evening dress is required and jeans, as Hercule Poirot would expect, are off-limits.
The coach transfer creates an unacceptable risk for Belmond, as there is no way for its passengers to avoid delays crossing the Channel. Travellers, including school parties, had to wait up to 14 hours in Dover at the start of the Easter holidays two weeks ago, and people have also faced queues for Le Shuttle.
Things could get worse, Belmond fears, as the UK and EU are planning new biometric passport controls and additional bureaucracy.
“We are adjusting operations in 2024 in anticipation of enhanced passport and border controls,” a Belmond spokesperson said. “We want to avoid any risk of travel disruption for our guests – delays and missed train connections – and provide the highest level of service, as smooth and relaxed as possible.”
The EU is introducing a new biometric entry/exit system (EES), which means that most people crossing the Channel who are not EU residents will need to provide fingerprints and facial recognition data when crossing the border, instead of having their passports stamped.
If the technology works smoothly, it could mean that travelers over the age of 12 will be able to use electronic entry gates and potentially save some time. But as even infants will need to provide biometric data, there is skepticism in the tourism industry about how the controls will work in practice. The EES was supposed to start this year but is now likely to come into force after the 2024 Paris Olympics.
And soon the EU and UK will force travelers to submit pre-travel authorization forms similar to the US ESTA program. British travelers will pay €7 to provide European authorities with personal information not found in their passports – such as criminal convictions, education and parental names – under Etias, the European travel information and authorization system. European travelers will provide similar details to the UK government for the UK’s Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) scheme, although Whitehall has yet to set a fee for it.
This is not great material for cozy mystery stories. “Technology has made many things easier,” said Mark Smith, founder of train travel site The Man in Seat 61. “But the one thing it has made it more difficult is crossing borders. In the old days, whatever border you’re at, there’s your passport, and away you go. Suddenly everyone wants to fingerprint you like you’re a criminal.”
Losing the British Pullman was a “huge shame,” he said. “The British Pullman was the appetizers – set you up with smoked salmon and champagne on the way from London to Folkestone on the traditional boat-train route passengers bound for the Orient Express would have used in the 1930s. Getting on the continental train at Calais in time to dress for dinner was wonderful.”
Passengers from London will be able to take the modern high-speed Eurostar to Paris and join the VSOE there, but “it’s not the same,” he said. “It’s a real shame if that part of the experience is gone.”
Not that the VSOE is entirely authentic to the original service, he added. “It was a much more professional train than most people imagine. The real thing would have had no pianos, no living rooms or bars, and certainly no balconies, whatever Kenneth Branagh thinks. You would have had sleeping cars and sat in your compartment in day mode most of the time.
The original Orient Express began service in 1883, running from Paris to Vienna, and several trains running the route south from France were given this name. The Simplon Orient Express began in April 1919, and Christie was inspired to write her novel Murder on the Orient Express after reading about the train stuck in the snow for five days. The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express was revived when James Sherwood bought some 1929 sleeping cars at auction in 1977 and began operating the service from London in 1982.
Smith, a former station manager at Charing Cross, said that despite high ticket prices, the VSOE was not elitist. “Most people splurge for a special event – it’s a once in a lifetime experience. I wondered if a trip could be worth three grand, or whatever I paid in 2003. But here I am 20 years later, married, with a mortgage, kids, two cats, and a dog. Powerful magic: We’ve only been dating for six months.”
Brexit has also disrupted other train travel: the Eurostar service from St Pancras to Disneyland Paris will end this summer.
The UK is also losing tourists from the rest of the world, according to Tom Jenkins, chief executive of Etoa, the European tourism association. “People are starting to leave the UK as a gateway to a European tour,” he said. “It’s not the only factor, but we had previously been the main arrival point for people coming to Europe from America, Japan and everywhere else.
“It was made perfectly clear in 2018 that a hard Brexit would mean UK citizens would have to check their passports. This really is Brexit that bites everyone in the butt.”
The pandemic has masked many of the problems created by the Brexit border, Jenkins said. “Easter 2023 was the first ordeal of the new regime and we saw it go horribly wrong in Dover.”
EES and Etias “could be very fast,” he added. “But the first time you do it, it might take a long time to process. It could be a real bottleneck.”