History of Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits ( CIWL )
Georges Nagelmakers: a bold entrepreneur
In 1870, traveling from one country to another involved numerous train changes. Furthermore, the rolling stock was still in its early stages, with no provision for providing passengers on long journeys with comfortable accommodations.
It took the bold venture of Belgian engineer Georges Nagelmackers to put an end to this compartmentalization and usher in a new era in transportation in Europe.
During a trip to America, where sleeping cars had been in use for several years, Georges Nagelmackers conceived the idea of extending this concept to Europe. In 1872, he founded a company in Liège to operate these new cars, which initially ran between Paris and Ostend, then between Paris and Cologne, and Paris and Vienna thereafter.
Rapid expansion of CIWL luxury trains
The fleet quickly expanded to include 58 sleeping cars, some of which represented a significant improvement over the earlier models.
Encouraged by the success of his venture, Georges Nagelmackers established the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits in Brussels on December 4, 1876. The company had a capital of four million francs and counted King Leopold II among its main shareholders.
The company has always maintained its Belgian character, with its cars adorned with two lions facing each other, reminiscent of the royal coat of arms of Belgium.
Since 1876, the CIWL has successively created a growing number of "grand expresses" connecting various countries.
The first train named the Orient Express was inaugurated on June 5, 1883. It ran twice a week between Paris and Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).
Initially, this train was not direct: passengers crossed the Danube to Rousse (Bulgaria) by ferry, then boarded a second train to the Black Sea. From there, a steamship transported passengers to Istanbul in fourteen hours.
From 1889, when the line was completed to Istanbul, the train became direct.
Following the Orient Express, numerous other luxury trains were launched, which by 1914 allowed the company to operate 1,600 cars across the entire European continent and in Egypt.
Continuously at the forefront of technical innovation, in 1922, the company introduced its first train composed entirely of metal cars with blue bodies, Le Train Bleu, offering unprecedented comfort.
The Golden Age of Wagons-Lits
It was between the two World Wars that the CIWL and the Orient Express experienced their golden age.
All celebrities and crowned heads traveled on the Train Bleu, the Orient Express, or other luxury trains operated by CIWL.
Agatha Christie and other authors celebrated the Orient Express, contributing to its myth.
At the forefront of progress, CIWL invested heavily in increasingly luxurious equipment, including Pullman Salon cars, the famous LX sleeping cars, and constant innovations in comfort, such as revolutionary bogies and other new technologies.
The decoration came from the finest luxury artisans: Lalique, Nelson, Christofle...
World War 2
In 1939, Compagnie des Wagons-Lits owned a fleet of 806 sleeping cars, 661 dining cars, 133 Pullman cars, and 138 vans, totaling 1,738 vehicles operating in 24 countries across Europe, North Africa, Central Africa, Egypt, Asian Turkey, Syria, and Palestine.
During the war from 1939 to 1945, Compagnie des Wagons-Lits suffered even more damage than during the First World War. A large number of its cars were damaged or destroyed throughout Europe.
By 1945, the company had reinstated most of its pre-war trains and international services. While political circumstances led to the abandonment of domestic lines in much of Central Europe, it continued to operate trains with evocative names like the "Orient-Express," "Arlberg-Orient-Express," and "Simplon-Orient-Express."
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 1960, the fleet consisted of 775 sleeping cars, 328 dining cars, 61 Pullman cars, and 31 vans, totaling 1,195 vehicles. With this fleet, the company recorded 2,172,000 sleeping car passengers in 1959 compared to 1,350,000 in 1938, and served 5 million meals compared to 3.5 million.
The company also continued the experiment with "auto-trains," allowing motorists to wake up at their destination after a night's rest with their car.
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.
New areas for growth
Apart from its luxury train activity, still the core 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 beyond trains travels, but also into plane tickets, hotel reservations 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 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 independant groups.
- 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.
- 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.
- Long Term Restaurant Concessions, 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
Take-over of CIWLT 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 licensing in 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.