North Western Europe comprised the Great Power empires of Great Britain, France, Germany and the Austrian Hungarian Empire. These lands were well developed in direct contrast with the lands of South Eastern Europe which were economically backward and impoverished.
In today’s Europe the area contains a number of nation states – Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Serbia and European Turkey. In the latter part of the 19th Century, this area was ruled over by the Great Powers which saw it as a playing field for their own territorial ambitions
These states were only just emerging from the Great Powers’ umbrella. By 1880, only Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania were outside this umbrella but only by a matter of a few years. Rail access to South East Europe was controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire through Wien and Budapest. Not until the Peace Treaties of 1918 was an alternative route secured.
Athenai was added to the network on achieving independence from Turkey in 1920.
Railway construction came late to South Eastern Europe. By the mid-1860s, the principal development of the Great Powers national networks had taken place in Western and Central Europe but development in South Eastern Europe came much later. The establishment of the lines which would ultimately provide the route of the Orient Express only came to fruition in the late 1880s when lines from the Austro-Hungarian Empire reached Beograd in 1884. This line was extended to Sofia and Niš thence Thessalonian in 1885. The onward connection to Istanbul was not completed until 1888.
From 1883 to 1977, it was possible to travel by through train from North West Europe to South Eastern Europe. Formerly associated with luxury travel in the inter war period, by the late 1950s it was evident that the route was suffering competition from air travel and the political problems of transiting Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. A major recast took place of services to the Orient destinations in 1962 resulting in the abolition of the main through services from Paris and their replacement by a single, slower, service. This stopped running in 1977.