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History of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits ( CIWL )

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Georges Nagelmakers: a bold entrepreneur

In 1876, rail travel was in its infancy in Europe. Long journeys and international travels were anything but a nightmare. Trains could not cross borders and passenger coach were most unconfortable.

A young Belgian engineer, Georges Nagelmackers, had the vision of a different story when he travelled to the US in 1870. He started the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits in 1872 and soon created his first luxury coaches for travels between Paris and Ostende, then Koln and Vienna...

Mr Nagelmackers’ talent was to negotiate the multiple contracts to run international trains, while setting up the complex infrastructure of CIWL.

His personal relationship with Leopold - king of Belgium and personal investor in the early CIWL- helped him raise the needed capital by issuing new shares on the stock markets. It also helped to initiate diplomatic talks at the highest level for future international trains.

Rapid expansion of CIWL luxury trains

Success was immediate and soon there were 58 sleeping coaches showing the latest innovations in confort. In order to accelerate the development of his company, he raised more capital, with king Leopold of Belgium as one of his first shareholders.

With such luxury and comfort, royalties, celebrities and rich businessmen started to travel more and more on Wagons-Lits trains.

CIWL soon became one of the most important travel empire in the Europe, stretching from Europe to Asia and Africa.

It is important to note that even when CIWL moved to Paris, CIWL always kept alive its Belgian roots, with a statutory quota of a third of CIWL’s directors being Belgian. A more symbolic illustration is the Wagons-Lits golden logo, with the Two lions recalling the heraldic signs of the Belgian kingdom.

The Orient-Express

From 1876 onwards, CIWL actively developped new luxury trains in Europe, with great ambitions for Europe’s Eastern destinations.

The Orient-Express, inaugurated in 1883, was the first to cross the borders of central Europe with a journey of more than 3 000 km.

In 1883, the Orient Express (called then the Direct Orient), was not direct. The crossing of the Danube was by ferry. A second train would take the passengers to the Black sea, where a steamer would take them to Istanbul in 14 hours.

In 1889, with the completion of the Eastern part of the railway line, the Orient-Express becomes direct and duration of the journey is less than 3 days.

With its refined luxury and the quality of on-board services, the Orient-Express was a revolution in the nascent international travel business, when crossing borders was a hazardous adventure.

The Golden Age of Wagons-Lits

The 1920’s and 1930’s were really the Golden Age for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits.

All celebrities and royalties would travel on the Blue Train, the Orient-Express or so many other CIWL luxury trains, attracting more and more rich families and businessmen. This allowed considerable growth of passenger activity for Wagons-Lits.

Media, literature and cinema helped to advertise Wagons-Lits for evermore new clients for its trains.

At the forefront of innovation, CIWL massively invested in Thousands of brand new sleeping cars, restaurant cars and Pullman salon cars. All these coaches offering more comfort innovation: such as revolutionary boggies and other innovative technologies. Decoration was commissioned to the best craftsmen in France, such as René Lalique, Nelson or Christoffle.

World War 2

In 1939, Compagnie des Wagons-Lits owned a rolling stock of 806 sleeping cars (wagons-lits), 661 restaurant cars, 133 Pullman salon cars and 138 bagage cars, representing 1738 wagons in circulation over 24 countries in Europe, North Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Palestine.

During WW2, Wagons-Lits endured considerable losses. A good part of its rolling stock was destroyed or heavily damaged everywhere Europe.

At the end of the war, the economic and political situation was a disaster in Europe. With a need for heavy investments in rolling stock and infrastructure.

With enthusiastic shareholders and strong back-up from allied governments, CIWL will soon take advantage to re-start, with a new vision for growth.

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Rebirth of CIWL after WW2

After world war II, despite the loss of more than 400 cars destroyed, damaged or disappeared, CIWL managed to relaunch all its services.

In 1959, rolling stock of CIWL was composed of 775 sleeping cars, 328 restaurant cars, 61 Pullman cars and 31 luggage wagons, for a total of 1 195 wagons. With more modern wagons full of the latest innovations, CIWL transported 2 172 000 passengers in 1959, against 1 350 000 in 1939. 5 millions meals were served in 1959, compared to 3 millions in 1939.

From the 60s onward, a new source of traffic came from the tourists going to the winter ski resorts of the Alps, which became as important as the summer transportations. These trains services developped by CIWL were soon completed with new innovations such as auto-trains and second class sleeping cars.

New areas for growth

Apart from its luxury train activity, still the chore of CIWL’s business, Wagons-Lits developped a strategy to develop other businesses, in relation to travel and tourism.

CIWL started to invest in hotels, creating different chains, from luxury to more accessible: Pullman, Altea, Arcade. These hotels chains were competing directly with  ACCOR's Sofitel, Mercure, Ibis.

CIWL owned 350 hotels worldwide in 1992, when ACCOR decided to launch a hostile takeover of CIWLT, attracted by the possibility to become Europe's leading hotel group.

The travel agency network was also developed not only for trains travellers, but also into plane tickets, ships, group and business travels.

In 1960, Wagons-Lits Travel and its partner Thomas Cook owned more than 400 agencies. Merged in the Carlson group in 2010, Carlson-Wagonlit is still the world leader in business travel agencies

CIWL On-board brigades

CIWL on-board personnel, organized in train brigades, have always been praised for their professionalism: from the 'chef de train' (train manager) to Sleeping-cars conductors, restaurant waiters, cooks or luggage carriers.

Theses on-board brigades were supported by an efficient network of local bases, reaching as far as the Middle East and Eastern Siberia.

Discipline and uniforms were army-like in perfection and style. The reputation of CIWL agents was very high in travellers' opinion. Many anecdotes reflect the stories hapening during at night, still kept in Wagons-Lits' archives.

The decline of luxury trains and new opportunities

The 60's marked the end of international development of CIWL's luxury train activities. Mythical Grands Express slowly disappeared from headlines, which CIWL had anticipated.

CIWL turned to more attractive activities such as Travel Agencies, Tourism, Hotels or Catering.

With the decline of the luxury trains in Europe, CIWL had to adapt its train concept to a new mass market for travel. Some major innovations for the train division can be noted, such as the launch of 2nd class sleeping car: the famous T2. Or the important catering contracts for the new TGV in France in the 1980’s.

But altogether, while CIWL continued to grow considerably, the train activities became marginal and most new investments and management attention turns to these new activities.

Diversification of CIWLT:

These strategic relays of growth, away from railway activities, are listed below. All these activities initially developed by CIWL, still exist today, generally merged to form new indepandant groups.

    -1) Hotels and Hospitality, a sector where CIWLT became one of the European leaders in the early 1980's, with more than 350 hotels. Today merged into the ACCOR, European leader in hotels.

    -2) Catering and collective restaurants, with the creation of EUREST, a JV with Nestlé, which became an important player in Europe and CIWLT's most important division, with more than 30 000 persons. It was sold to the Compass group, world leader in catering.

    -3) Concession and Contractual Catering, with motorway restaurants and management contracts (museums, malls, train stations, exhibition centers). This activity is still today the core of Elior, a European giant in the restaurant business.

    -4) Travel Agencies, under the Wagonlit Travel brand, became European leader. Merged with the Carlson agencies, Carlson Wagonlit Travel is the world leader in Business Travel

    -5) Europcar - car rental , which CIWLT acquired with Wolkswagen in the 1970's and subsequently developped to become one of the Big Three in Car rental with Avis and Hertz. Europcar was divested in the early 1990.

    -6) On-Board Rail Services, historical activity of CIWL, providing night trains and day catering in 10 countries in Europe. This division was sold in 2009 to Newrest, specialised air catering.

CIWL bought by ACCOR

In 1990, the Wagons-Lits Group was then a diversified giant in tourism, restaurant and hotels, present on 5 continents, with more than 50 000 employees. Business was good, but the shareholder’s structure was weak, making CIWLT an attractive target for competitors.

In 1991, ACCOR launched a hostile takeover on the Paris and Brussel Stock Exchanges, attracted by CIWLT's unique hotel network, while SODEXO tried to absorb EUREST.

Since 1991 up to now, all divisions were either integrated in the Hotels Divisions of ACCOR, or divested to specialized international groups, as mentioned above. 

In 1996, in order to protect its intellectual properties, CIWL and its mother company ACCOR, created WAGONS-LITS DIFFUSION, with the mission to develop the brand and the use of archives material for publishing, media or luxury products.

A myth dear and familiar to the public

CIWL remains today a mythical company for the public, still remembered through its famous trains such as the Orient-Express or the Blue Train. 

With its famous golden logo with 2 lions, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits still enjoys a great enthusiasm from the public, in France and abroad, as measured by the success of recent public exhibitions, films or the many new publications every year.

Georges Nagelmackers' vision and heritage are still alive.

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