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The Queens of the Roundabout

About two hours before the departure of the train, the machinist and the stoker meet in the service office to get the waybill and then head towards the depot where, stationed since the eve, the locomotive awaits.

When a machine arrived to its destination, the crew had to empty the fire box, degrease the grill and sweep away the soot on the smoke box. The apprentices - who yearn to become machinists some day - have cleaned the locomotive conscientiously to the point of making its copper parts to shine. Then the lighter approaches the machine provided with handfuls of grease-dirty rags and sheaves, to light again the fire on the fire box and set the locomotive at half pressure. This is not a comfortable task and it is necessary to know well the machines and their men as well, for every locomotive has its own caprices and every stoker has its own pet peeves.

At this point the machinist and the stoker walk around the "queen of the turntable" to carefully inspect the locomotive and its tender. They verify the command controls and the levels, leaving everything ready for operation. The stoker burns briquettes of coal and raises to the maximum the pressure of the steam, while the machinist takes a long-neck oiler and starts to lubricate the machine, which is a task of maximum importance that he would never entrust to another person. The oil boxes of every axle and connecting rod must be filled to the brim and a jet of oil must be thrown as well to every piston, every valve and every mobile part. Not a lot nor little oil, but the necessary, for the expense is very noticeable and there is a bonus for whom economizes it.

Steam locomotive machinist

When the preparations have finalized, the crew moves the locomotive towards the rotatory platform where it will be placed into position for being supplied with water, coal and sand. The supply of coal is often a cause of vivid disputes between the personnel of the depot and the driving crews, for these generally believe that the quality of the fuel provided is unworthy of their machine. A coal of bad quality can obstruct valves, turn off the fire and generate more smoke than heat; in fact, there are coals that are mixed with clay and some others that form metallic slags on the grill, which makes necessary to scratch them, with great effort, to prevent a fall of pressure, even to throw them away upon the railroad track between stations. Besides the waste of fuel, it must be taken into account that the refill of the fire box means a waste of time, and the driving crew is sanctioned when incurring in time delays.

Vintage railway
To avoid complex maneuvers in saturated depots, the locomotives, during the night, were generally stored in parking garages disposed in a circular or semicircular way, denominated "roundabouts". All of the tracks converged into a rotatory platform in the center, denominated "turntable", from where the locomotives could be easily orientated into the desired direction. These platforms were so well balanced that a locomotive weighing hundreds of tonnes could be quickly placed into position, with a minimal effort.

Meanwhile, in the other tracks of the depot, the shunting machines have formed the train, the devices coupling the wagons have been inspected and the bodywork has been carefully cleaned with soap, brush and steam jets. The departments are already clean and scrubbed and the bunk beds have been provided with clean clothes, blankets and all the necessary to serve the breakfast, while the kitchen of the restaurant car is full of viands and drinks. They are about to be placed in the small copper frames, placed on each seat, the carboards that indicate the reservation of places and, finally, to hang in the exterior of each car the plate indicating the destination: Milan, Bucarest or Ankara.

With the gaze fixed on the clock and the hand on the lever of the regulator, the machinist awaits. When the station master gives the signal, the locomotive starts a slow backward movement until hitting the bumper guard of the leading car, being then effectuated the coupling. Then the machinist verifies the braking system and, moving backwards, the train majestically crosses the depot, enters beneath the cupola of the station and slowly stops at few centimeters of the bumper guards of the track assigned to it. Everything is ready for the departure.

En Route to Adventure

In the platform of La Gare de Lyon railway station, it has ceased to be heard the voice of the interpreters, announcing arrivals and departures, the newspaper sellers count the money raised and the porters keep in their pockets the tips received in the form of francs, sterling pounds, marks, liras, drachmas and even, sometimes, dollars. It is 18:53 o'clock and the Simplon Orient Express, the most cosmopolitan of trains, that of illustrious men and great adventurers, of diplomatists and spies, slowly starts its march, leaving Paris bound for Turkey and the mysterious Far East.

Vintage railway
"Passengers to the train, please! Attention to departure!" These would be the words of the station master warning the lagging passengers to force their pace, followed by the porters, to the wagons. From his driving cabin on the locomotive, the machinist would make sure that everyone had entered the train, before pulling the handle of the strident whistle and actuating the regulator.

The Belgian Georges Nackelmackers, also founder of the Wagons-Lits Company, was who thought of putting in service a luxury train that crossed Europe, without forcing the travelers to swap trains on each frontier. However, many years had to pass of arduous negotiations with the different private railway companies and with the governments of the seven countries involved, before the first Orient Express could depart from the East railway station in 1883, to cover the roughly 3000 kilometers that separated Paris from the Black Sea.

Initially, the route was effectuated through Strasbourg, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Budapest and Bucarest until reaching the port city of Varna, in Bulgaria. From here, the travelers that wanted to reach Istanbul had to get onboard a steam ship. This line was maintained at the expense of great efforts until the advent of the First World War, despite the strong snow storms, the attacks from bandits and the continuous political unstability existing in the Balkans. However, in the signature of the Versailles Treaty is was stipulated the total restore of the Orient Express.

During the war, the Allies had found the way of reaching the East, avoiding Germany and Austria by opening an alternative route that went across Switzerland and the Simplon Tunnel, and then passed by Milan, Venetia, Trieste and Belgrad, continuing towards Bulgaria and the East. The travel through Bulgaria was not always a pleasure trip, for King Boris, very fond of steam locomotives, in many occasions demanded to occupy the place of the machinists, fact which, given his inexperience in this labor, was a serious risk for the travelers.

However, King Boris was not the only man that let his fantasy fly by feeling like master and lord of the railway. It is said that in a certain occasion the station master of a small locality on the Balkans ordered that the train stopped and that the passports of all the passengers were delivered to him. So it was done and, after quite a while, one of the travelers was invited to leave the train and show up at the office of the station master. He entered, trembling with fear, and he almost expected to be sent for execution when he was pleasantly surprised to see that the station master offered him a glass of champagne, while explaining that he had noticed in his passport the coincidence of their birth dates, so he felt encouraged to invite him to celebrate their birthday together.

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