The Orient Express soon to roll again
London — Was it my imagination, or were the flocks of pigeons making an unusual flutter at London's Victoria Station the other day? If so, they were no less excited than the throngs of Londoners who showed up at the drafty, glass-roofed old depot to have a look at the revived Simplon Orient-Express, which will begin to roll again in May 1982 in all its mysterious splendor.
There had been notices in the London papers announcing the train's one-day walk-through, but somehow I didn't expect the endless queues I encountered on that weekday afternoon. Maybe it was the English fascination for machines, history, and craftsmanship, or maybe just a convenient escape from political and economic realities. At any rate, the veteran uniformed guard ordered me to the back of the line, unmoved by my pleas about a plane to catch and readers to please. Of course, I was not about to break into an English queue on my own, an unpardonable act.
The guard huddled with his colleague a moment and then, somehow softened, escorted me down the track. ''I traveled on this train in 1946,'' he said. ''I was in Dover, coming up to Victoria with a gang of other soldiers. I'd been on troop trains for six years and I took one look at the Orient Express and said, 'That's for me. . . . I don't care what it costs.' ''
Suddenly before me loomed an apparition in cream and chocolate brown. Four shining cars lay under spotlights, a red carpet stretched alongside. The guard put me aboard and as the line of admirers began to crawl through the corridors, reality and a half a century fell away. I was with Mata Hari, Baron Rothschild, Nellie Melba; yes, and Herbert Hoover - Orient Express customers all.
Of course, we weren't going anywhere, there wasn't even an engine attached, but I was transported knowing that on May 28 this Simplon Orient Express, 21/2 years and $20 million in the remaking, would pull out of Victoria at 11:44 on the first of twice-weekly, 25-hour journeys to Venice. It is expected that the sumptuous all-first-class service will attract curious, comfortable tourists, but the Sea Containers Group - the company behind the project - also thinks the meat of the trip between Paris and Milan will appeal to overnight business travelers. Paris-Milan will cost $390, almost twice the price of a first-class private sleeper on the Lombardie Express, the sleekest regularly scheduled run between the two cities. Of course Orient Express passengers will be treated to the service of a bygone age, right down to the wide-lapeled morning coats and waxed mustaches of the hand-picked staff.
The Simplon Orient Express is not to be confused with the Nostalgic Orient Express, one of several classic trains operated by Intraflug Ltd. of Zurich, which makes splendid but only occasional trips from Zurich to Istanbul, the next on May 5. While one associates the Orient Express with the spice and intrigue of Istanbul, thanks to Graham Greene's ''Stamboul Express'' and Agatha Christie's ''Murder on the Orient Express,'' Turkey was one of only several terminal points served by the long-running star train. From 1883 when it was launched from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople) until it was retired in ignominy in 1977, the Orient Express also had sections to Athens, Bucharest, Sofia, etc. With the completion of the Simplon Tunnel in 1906, the Paris-Venice run became one of the most luxurious rides in the world, carrying royalty and heads of state, musicians and actors, authors and spies.
It is the predepression 1920s that the Simplon Orient Express will re-create, and if my walk-through was any sign, that grand era of railway travel will be improved on. Along with lush cosmetic remodeling - mahogany walls imbedded with marquetry and lalique, lavatories with minute mosaic floors decorated with swans and phoenixes - the circa 1920s cars, bare skeletons when the company rescued them, have been given modern fire standards, all-electric heating, and an added salon for late snacks and piano listening. (For bookings and information: Simplon Orient Express, Suite 2847, One World Trade Center, New York, N.Y. 10048 .)
I can only speak for the English Pullman car renovations, those cars that will run from Victoria to Folkestone on the Channel (where a 90-minute Sealink Ferry will run passengers to Boulogne and waiting Wagons-Lits sleepers, redone at shops in Ostend and Bremen). But this was clearly not an overnight patchwork job I and my hushed fellow rubberneckers were viewing.
Along with some members of the hired staff, circulating through the coaches in period costume, were three men in ordinary coats and ties enjoying the comfort of deeply stuffed chairs. David Timmins, Neil O'Connor, and Mason Ghorst said they had been part of the work force that had spent 21/2 years redoing the cars at shops in Carnforth, Lancashire, the site of Steamtown, a working railway museum. We were seated in a car called Phoenix, repaneled with a light brown American cherry with mahogany edging, the men told me. Phoenix is an appropriate name, for the car had already been through several lives, built in 1927, gutted by fire in 1936, rebuilt in 1952. It had been the favorite carriage of the Queen Mother and had been used now and then by General de Gaulle; after retirement, in 1972, it had been a stationary restaurant in Lyon.
The three men had ridden the train down from Lancashire, and one said, ''It is far better, if I may say so, than British Rail stock - very quiet and stable.'' They said the project had taken on mostly local skill - fitters, carpenters, cabinetmakers, special painters - ''every trade you can think of.'' They would not get to ride home to Lancashire on the Orient Express, ''but just on an ordinary train like ordinary tourists,'' said Mason Ghorst. They were clearly enjoying the past they had helped re-create, and so was I.