Portillo Rides the Rail(roads) Again
Good news for fans of rail travel, intelligent televised travel porn and the irrepressible Michael Portillo’s ever expanding wardrobe of pastel-coloured blazers! The man himself is back on our screens.
Having thoroughly exhausted Europe and Britain with his Great Railway Journeys series, he’s now set his sights further afield with his new 15 part series on BBC2: Great American Railroad Journeys, armed this time with a trusty copy of an Appleton Guide, the original guidebooks published for US railroad travellers back in the 1870s.
This gives us the perfect excuse of course to get all dewy eyed about our own 2013 Amtrak trip across America. You can read our posts about the various journeys including the Crescent Train and the Coast Starlight on these very pages, and if you’re hoping to follow in Mr Portillo’s tracks then you might also want to gen up on our tips to save money and plan for your big Amtrak adventure.
Oh Say Can You See…
Tonight he started his journey in New York City, and although, as the bald-eagle-eyed Mrs Jools pointed out, he failed to board an actual Amtrak train in the entire first 30 minute episode, he took in a fair smattering of sights, including the Flat Iron Building, Broadway, the Met – and of course the spectacularly eye-popping piece of architectural theatrics that is Grand Central Station. (Sadly both our NYC journeys departed from the somewhat less salubrious Penn Station, so we lived vicariously through his exploits tonight!)
As usual there was a judicious sprinkling of history (on New York’s ‘glided age’ and on the powerful railroad tycoons and ‘robber barons’ who built the railroad, uniting a country and economy in the years after the US Civil War) blended in with visits to a number of bona-fide institutions, including the snazzy Delmonico’s Restaurant in the Financial District.
And of course there was the now obligatory cringe-worthy set piece, such as his being serenaded with a version of the Chattanooga Choo Choo by a troupe of 1940s -garbed showgirls in a New York diner.
Thanks to Simon Varwell for pointing me to this collection of bare cheeked, ruddy-faced pun slinging.
Portillo tends to divide opinion and his presenting style is admittedly not for everyone, but as this piece trenchantly observes in describing him as ‘like a weaponised embarrassing dad’ there is something eminently watchable and endearingly enthusiastic about his schtick and basic, brazen chutzpah.
This is a word he uses himself to describe the American drive to build their railroads and great cities – and it strikes me that he would probably get a better reception in the land of the free than on home turf somehow.
The Sunset Ltd Rises Again
This follows hot on the heels of heartening news that Amtrak will finally be testing the section of track damaged by Hurricane Katrina later this month. If all goes well this could mean the restoration of the marvelous Sunset Ltd train after an 11 year hiatus. At present the journey starts in New Orleans and ends in LA, but prior to Katrina it stretched all the way to Jacksonville Florida.
The Sunset is America’s oldest rail service still in operation, and if / when it’s fully restored (when, please let it be when!) it will once again allow passengers to do a complete round trip around the coastal circumference of the USA. Now wouldn’t that be something folks?
Finally you might also care to read my frankly ludicrously curtailed whistlestop feature about our 3 week Amtrak published in TNT Magazine last month, which aims to give Amtrak newbies a sense of the experience.
The next show of Great American Railroad Journeys (on BBC2 tonight, Tuesday February 2), stays in the Big Apple, with a look at Ellis Island and the Freedom Tower.
In fact the show is on all week on consecutive nights, so why not stick a feather in your cap and gorge yourselves on this yankee doodle dandy telly extravaganza? I know we sure will!