In 1929 the Orient Express was disastrously snowbound 50 miles from Istanbul

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Railways, Transport, Travel on Wednesday, 7 August 2013

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This edited article about the Orient Express originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 363 published on 28 December 1968.

Orient Express, picture, image, illustration

The diggers broke through at dusk; in the distance shone the lights of a lonely village.

There were only twenty passengers aboard the Orient Express as the famous train started on the last leg of its 2,000-mile journey from Paris to Istanbul. It had been snowing for most of the way, and as the train crossed the frontier from Bulgaria into Turkey, flakes the size of a child’s hand beat against the engine and coaches.

Gradually the train was forced to slow to a crawl. Then, some fifty miles from its destination, it came to a complete halt. The passengers – a mixture of diplomats, priests, and businessmen and their wives – looked at each other in dismay. Such a thing had not happened in all the 46 years the train had been running.

After a wait of half-an-hour, they learnt the worst when the chef-de-train came into the parlour-car to speak to them. He looked at them gravely and said: “The telegraph-lines are down all along the track, thanks to the weight of the snow and the force of the blizzard. We cannot get a message either forward or back. . . . In a word . . . we are marooned.”

Peering through the windows, the passengers now saw that the train was surrounded by huge banks of snow, which were growing higher all the time. It was January, 1929, and the winter was one of the worst for many years.

For two days the blizzard continued; on the third day, it stopped.

This was some consolation for the marooned people, whose plight had become serious. The train’s steam-heating had ceased to work and the temperature inside the compartments was at freezing-point. The passengers huddled in their bunks wearing every article of clothing they had. The usual sumptuous meals had been reduced to one meagre one a day. The train’s supply of fuel was nearly at an end, and before long there would not even be hot coffee available.

The snow was now so deep that it had formed a roof right over the train. But for that, those on board might have been colder than they were.

By this time the gas-cylinders that provided light for the train were empty. There was little illumination by day and none at all for much of the night.

There was no sign that any help was on its way, and the passengers were faced with two choices: they must either break out of their snow prison, or stay there until they died. The decision was an easy one to make, and after a brief discussion a team of able-bodied volunteers commenced the work of tunnelling through the hard-packed snow.

Armed with shovels, pick-axes, and iron bars, they dug outwards from the engine, the warmth from which had made a starting-place in the snow. It was exhausting work, and the men took turns to hack away at the white wall stretching in front of them. Slowly a tunnel began to take shape behind them. Then came disaster. The tunnel suddenly caved in, cutting the tunnellers off from their companions in the train.

The chef-de-train had split the workers into two groups. He told one group to keep on digging, forward, and the other to clear the fallen snow from the tunnel. The second group did this, then prised steps and running-boards from the train and used them to shore up the walls and roof of the tunnel.

For two days and nights the laborious work continued. The tunnel collapsed twice more and had to be cleared and strengthened.

At last the weary men broke through into the open air. It was dusk, and in the distance they could see the lights of a lonely village shining like yellow lanterns.

That night they rested, then, the following morning, set off towards the village. Under the guidance of the chef-de-train a makeshift sledge had been constructed, and the little party dragged this towards the promise of food and shelter. They intended to recover their strength in the village and then return to the train for the rest of the passengers.

But when they reached the village, their hopes were dashed. Far from offering them help and sympathy, the villagers regarded them as unwelcome intruders. The men managed to commandeer some eggs, a couple of skinny hens, and a little wood, but that was all. The villagers had hardly enough food to keep themselves alive and were not prepared to share it with strangers.

When the men returned to the train with the news, one of the women became so despondent that she tried to commit suicide. In desperation, the passengers pooled their money and made another trip to the village. This time the lure of gold proved too strong for the villagers, who eagerly sold the travellers guns, hens, goats, sheep, and a sledgeful of logs.

Now that they had provisions, the passengers settled down to wait in the train until the snow melted or help arrived. A pack of starving wolves which had smelt the livestock came to investigate, but they were driven off by members of the train crew, who shot two of the marauders dead.

Finally, after another three days, a number of sleighs carrying Turkish soldiers arrived. As well as more food and fuel, the soldiers brought good news with them. A powerful snowplough was fighting its way towards the snowbound train.

A short while later, the Orient Express was free of the snow and once again under steam. It reached Istanbul (Constantinople, as it was then called) more than a week late.

The grateful travellers aboard it signed a testimonial to the bravery and devotion of the train crew.

We passengers feel it our duty to place on record the fact that the entire staff of the train marooned in the snow . . . in the most appalling conditions, individually made superhuman efforts to ensure that their passengers should suffer the least possible discomfort . . . and though short of all that was essential, individually did their duty by us to the bitter end.

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