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In chapter 9 of Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, which takes place in the late 1920s, one of the characters goes to a travel agency in London and asks for the best way to get to Nice. The clerk advises the titular Blue Train because “you avoid all the tiresome Customs business at Calais.”

I don’t understand how this could be —- Calais was the terminus for the Blue Train, so you wouldn’t have a customs inspection while on the train itself, but certainly you would upon landing at Calais? Characters are depicted in the next chapter taking a train from London to Dover, and then a ferry to Calais, before finally boarding the Blue Train, but Christie doesn’t mention customs inspections or passport control.

What is the travel agent referring to when he says Blue Train passengers avoid customs?

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    Given that the Blue Train catered to the ultra-rich, it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Customs Inspection for passengers coming from England by ferry were carried out on the train.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jan 16 at 4:12

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In the 1920s, travellers on the Calais–Méditerranée express checked in their luggage at the departure station (for example, Victoria in London) and this was “registered through” to the destination station (for example, Nice or Monte Carlo). It could be examined by customs staff on the train, or upon arrival at the destination station. (For other trains, there was also the possibility of examination at an intermediate station.)

I found accounts of both these methods in publications roughly contemporary with The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928). Here’s a 1927 guide which says that luggage was examined on the train:

Customs Examinations Outwards.—During the winter months (from the beginning of November) luggage registered from London by the 11.0 a.m. service (except by the Calais–Mediterranean Express, in which case registered and hand-luggage is examined in the train en route, usually between Calais and Amiens) to the following destinations is examined by the French and/or Italian Customs at the places specified, viz. […]

Roy Elston (1927). The Traveller’s Handbook to the Rivieras of France and Italy, pp. 39–40. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent.

But here’s a different guide from the same year which says that luggage was (mainly) examined at the destination. Note the highlighted aside!

The least uncomfortable mode of travelling is by Dover–Calais and one of the through expresses (“Calais–Méditerranée”) […] A point you need to be particular about is where your registered luggage will be examined. It depends upon your destination. As a rule, luggage registered through to any of the larger places is examined at the destination, but the regulations change so much that one never knows. Luggage registered through to Monte Carlo is examined at Monaco, the next station.

Robert Elson (1927). How to be Happy on the Riviera, p. 130. London: Arrowsmith.

In the 1920s, the railway at Calais ran all the way to the quayside, so that passengers could transfer directly from the boat to the train without having to retrieve their luggage and take a bus into town, as they have to do today. The 1:50,000 scale map below (from 1942) shows the railway line extending past the town-centre station (Gare de Calais-Ville) to a second station (Gare de Calais-Maritime) on the quay between the harbour and the Bassin des Chasses. This meant that customs could safely be skipped at Calais for Blue Train passengers without much risk of smuggling.

Royal Engineers topographical map from 1942 showing the built-up area of Calais and the port.

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