Visitors to a quirky rail museum in France’s Burgundy region, the brainchild of US entrepreneur Gregory Marshall, will have a new opportunity to spend a night on the legendary Orient Express.
Two carriages and a locomotive from the line created in 1883 to carry the well-heeled from Paris to Constantinople, as Istanbul was then called, are the jewel of Marshall’s growing collection of steam trains for a hotel-cum-museum he hopes to open next year.
The Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul in 1977 when the service was shortened and the fabled train made its last journey in December 2009.
Dating from 1948, Marshall’s Orient Express carriages include a luxurious restaurant car — which features a cylinder phonograph among its period highlights — where guests will dine.
Marshall’s “dream train” project is centred on a disused railway station nestled among century-old oaks and aspens in the village of Dracy-Saint-Loup, population 600.
Once he brings the long-deserted station, built in 1882, back to life, “it’ll be great for kids,” said the white-haired Marshall, who looks far younger than his 71 years.
“I’ve loved trains since I was a child,” said Marshall, a former US Marine who remembers the first toy train set his father gave him when he was five or six years old.
“Almost everybody of my age, older, or a little bit younger, has memories of steam locomotives,” Marshall said.
“But in regular museums there’s no participation, people can’t get on (the trains), and really enjoy them, have an adventure.”
The last locomotive to arrive at the site was a Cockerill from Belgium, taking its place beside a huge steam engine dating from 1916.
Marshall’s French manager, Gregory Godessart, says guests cannot expect to enjoy all the modern comforts, but just “to have fun spending the night in the Orient Express.”
So far one of the wagons is practically ready to take paying guests, with Marshall aiming for a spring 2018 opening.
For his own sleeping comfort, Marshall plans a “double-decker” carriage that will be his main residence at the Dracy-Saint-Loup station, which lies on a now defunct line that meanders through Burgundy’s Morvan highlands and has not seen a passenger since 2011.
Marshall, who made a fortune from some telecommunications patents, bought the dilapidated building from the French state railway company SNCF in September 2016.
He knows his “dream train” project is going to bust the 200,000 euro ($230,000) budget he set.
But he doesn’t mind.
Formerly active with American heritage groups, Marshall hopes his station and its historic rolling stock will earn a historic classification in France.
Marshall is not only about steam trains.
An avid pilot, he owns a Piper Lance six-seater, which is parked at the airport in the nearby Burgundy capital Dijon.
Before moving to France in 2003, he lived in Boston and Hawaii, as well as California where he was in the celebrated California Highway Patrol.
“Very interesting, very fun, when you’re young, you chase bad guys and arrest them, it’s an adventure,” said Marshall, who was divorced, remarried and is now a widower.
“I’m not happy if I do the same thing for too long,” he said.
Marshall has a collection of Citroen’s emblematic Deux Chevaux (2CV) cars, including one that he has adapted to look like a World War II-era US army vehicle.
One day he hopes to ship over to France the last home of the pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 flew nonstop from New York to Paris, which he dismantled several years ago in order to preserve it.
Dracy-Saint-Loup residents are enthused by Marshall’s project.
Godessart said “a little old lady, 95 years old, who used to take the train with her grandmother” visited the site.
While the “dream train” project slowly takes shape, weeds continue to consume the old tracks and the rickety station platform sags in places.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Marshall said. — AFP