Rent-a-Ride Meets Orient Express

A drunken man stood on the train platform in a stupor, leaning on a pole and trying to focus. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head. Surely this was a hallucination. The Orient Express could not have pulled into the station at Sergeyev Posad. Or could it?


The train that arrived at Sergeyev Posad, 64 kilometers northeast of Moscow, last weekend, to the befuddled gazes of local residents, included three cars from the famed Orient Express that once traveled regularly from Paris to Istanbul.


There were salon cars, where passengers relaxed in thickly-upholstered armchairs, reading newspapers and admiring the Lalique-crystal figures set into dark paneled walls. There was a bar car, where travelers lounged on leather loveseats while a pianist played "Ragtime." And in a bit of an anachronism, there was a car from Brezhnev's personal train, complete with conference room, bedroom and bathroom with bathtub and shower.


The train, which traveled from Moscow to Sergeyev Posad and back, belongs to Rusrail, a Swiss-Russian joint venture that has 15 cars from the Orient Express in Switzerland and 15 in Russia. The Russian partners, three different government railway concerns, also have six of the Soviet Union's "presidential" cars -- three from Brezhnev's personal train and three from trains used by Andropov and Chernenko.


For the past year, the trains have been used for luxury train trips across Russia and into China. But now the firm is offering a new idea: Rent-a-Train. Between excursions, while the trains are stationed in Moscow, the firm is making them available to private groups.


"Maybe you want to take this train for the weekend? No problem," said Alexei Andronnikov, the general director of Rusrail. "You can go wherever you want, even just around Moscow."


Rusrail's first customer for a daytrip was the Moscow Aerostar Hotel, which invited about 70 guests to enjoy the splendor of the original Orient Express, which stopped running in 1977. The hotel's catering division, Aerostar a la carte, provided the food: champagne as the train pulled out of Yaroslavsky Station; poached salmon, asparagus, shrimp and caviar as it chugged along toward Sergeyev Posad; and tea sandwiches, petits fours and fresh fruit on the way back.


"There are just so many times you can invite people to events at the hotel," said Andrew Ivanyi, the hotel's general manager, during a cup of tea in the dining car. "We wanted to do something different."


Renting the same train for a day's excursion to Sergeyev Posad (about 90 minutes one way) costs about $2,500, not including food and drink, Andronnikov said. Rusrail can cater plain or fancy, or travelers can arrange their own provisions. Hiring the Aerostar's catering firm to duplicate Sunday's excursion would cost about $200 per person -- including the train, food and drink, said Dominique Havre, the hotel's food and beverage director.


The guests, who included representatives of the World Bank, Masterfoods, the U.S. Embassy, the United Nations Refugee Office and United Technologies, seemed suitably impressed.


"I was not prepared for something as spectacular as this," said Mark Chapman, the operations manager of Chase Manhattan Bank in Moscow. "It's very unique."


"It's a dream come true for us," said passenger Benedicte White. "We always wanted to go on the Orient Express but thought we'd never do it."