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5 March 2024

The Blue Train: How the Upper-Class Traveled to the Riviera

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The Blue Train: How the Upper-Class Traveled to the Riviera

In the early 1800s, it became fashionable for the privileged to leave cold and dreary England to spend winter on the sunny Mediterranean coast. At first, it was a long and difficult carriage journey, but by 1864, a railway across France made the trip simple and short. 

The Calais-MediterranĂ©e Express started operation in 1886, whisking passengers from chilly Calais to sunlit Nice overnight. The rich and famous frequented this luxuriously appointed hotel on wheels which included gold-trimmed, dark blue sleeping compartments, giving the Express its nickname, Le Train Bleu.

Agatha Christie’s novel, The Mystery of the Blue Train, has 36 chapters, but only about two and a half of those chapters actually take place on the train. Still, it’s delightful to follow along on the journey and imagine what it would be like to travel first-class on Le Train Bleu.

If we are English, like Ruth Kettering, our journey begins at Victoria Station. Named for Victoria Street, the station opened in 1860 in the Westminster area of London. Situated north of the Thames, a new bridge was built to connect Victoria with railways that served the southern coast, which is where we’ll need to go for crossing over to the Continent.

Ruth’s father, the wealthy Rufus Van Aldin, accompanies his daughter to Victoria Station to see her off. He’s brought her magazines and newspapers to pass the time and helps her settle into her compartment in the Pullman car. Pullman train cars were renowned for their exceptional luxury and attentive service and started serving Victoria Station in 1875.

The brainchild of American George Pullman, Pullman carriages featured carpeting and drapes, tables and upholstered chairs, a smoother ride, and impeccable service. His first sleeper cars were built near Chicago, but soon were speeding down railways across America and, eventually, England.

As the train leaves Victoria Station, Ruth finds herself sitting across from Katherine Grey until they reach Dover, as in the “White Cliffs of.” Several steam turbine ships provided regular passage across the Strait of Dover, the narrowest stretch of the Channel between England and France. It’s a relatively quick trip, under two hours, and upper-middle-class vacationers sometimes go over on day trips. Even so, wealthy Ruth pays for a cabin to escape the cold. Agatha doesn’t say so, but one suspects that Katherine does not so she can experience the crossing.

When the steamer reaches Calais, Ruth, Katherine, and other characters from the novel board the Blue Train straight from the boat because the tracks run right onto the quay. The travel agent at Cook’s advised Derek Kettering that one of the advantages of booking the Blue Train is that passengers’ luggage is checked in at Victoria and sent through so he wouldn’t have to go through customs when landing at Calais. Apparently, customs officials sometimes checked bags en route and sometimes at the end of the journey, but at least one didn’t have to stand around in cold Calais.

Once settled onboard the train, Ruth Kettering goes to the luncheon car and finds she’s been seated with Katherine Grey again. Christie tells us that “a flying attendant shot up to them with the wonderful velocity always displayed by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits."

The Wagons-Lits company was founded in 1874 by Georges Nagelmackers – a Belgian like Poirot! – who had been impressed by Pullman trains during a trip to America and brought the concept to Europe. Wagons-Lits did not have their own locomotives but focused instead on providing luxury sleeping cars and haute cuisine dining cars for state railways. 

From Calais, the train travels to Paris for “the slow journey round the ceinture.” “Ceinture” means “belt” and it refers to the railway that circled the city with numerous stops along the way. Katherine disembarks at the Gare de Lyon station for a little exercise and sees a dinner basket being handed up through Ruth’s window, suggesting they won’t be seated together again.

What might have been in that basket has been difficult to figure out. A number of Wagons-Lits menus are available for viewing online, but none mention a “dinner basket” option. Knowing the haute cuisine standard of Wagons-Lits, it’s hard to believe they would pack up all of the hot and cold courses, higgledy-piggledy, in one basket. Maybe they had a stew-type option that wouldn’t overcook or cool too quickly if it sat in a hamper?

In a 1920s photo of a New Zealand carriage, there is a basket on the seat that may be a food hamper. On the table are ceramic plates, a drinking glass, a teacup, and a thermos that is labeled “N.Z.R.,” no doubt for New Zealand Railway. Soup and coffee could both be kept hot in a couple of thermoses which would be a nice accompaniment for luncheon-type food that tended to be cold options such as meat in aspic or salads. Possibly that’s what was in Ruth’s dinner basket.

During dinner, the sleeping compartments are transformed from sitting rooms into bedrooms. Each Wagons-Lits car had ten compartments and one attendant who made up the rooms every evening and morning as Pierre Michel did for Ruth while she ate dinner from her basket. Overnight, the train stops at several cities as it travels south and, in the novel, Katherine wakes up when the train is at Lyons, in time to see Derek Kettering in the corridor.

In the morning when Katherine wakes, the climate has changed from temperate to Mediterranean. She is probably somewhere around Marseilles which is on the coast. We learn she is “entranced” by the view of palm trees and mimosa flowers passing by her window and she even gets out on the platform at Cannes to stand in the sunshine.

Back onboard, Katherine learns from the attendant that it won’t be long before they arrive in Nice. The route continues for a few more stops such as Monte Carlo and Menton in quick succession before reaching the Italian border at Ventimiglia, the end of the line.

Katherine, however, disembarks at Nice and is met by Chubby, the latest husband of her distant cousin, Lady Tamplin. While this is only the beginning of Katherine’s roman policier (detective story), her travel story is at an end – as is our vicarious journey on the famed Le Train Bleu!

The Great Depression severely curtailed travel even for the wealthy and by 1938, the Blue Train was merely an overnight express. The next blows were World War II, increasingly convenient air travel, and more efficient railways until by the 1980s, leisurely overnight train trips ceased to be. Even the name was changed from Le Train Bleu.

A revival or two has been attempted in the last few years, but there doesn’t seem to be anything like Le Train Bleu right now, although there was a one-off trip in 2022 that looks like it was fabulous! That journey was actually organized by the Orient-Express which does still offer luxury train travel.  So if you have the itch – and the bank account – it is still possible to recreate the experience of an Agatha Christie hero or heroine and live your own well-heeled and mysterious journey.

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1 comments on article "The Blue Train: How the Upper-Class Traveled to the Riviera"

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Luis Nunez

3/10/2024 6:07 PM

Absolutely fascinating information. I just finished listening to the audio version of The Mystery of the Blue Train, and your research made everything clearer and much more fun.

Thank you most sincerely for your stellar research, and for sharing so much background on everything Agatha!

I am so glad to become a devoted fan of your work.

Blessings,

Luis

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