Rail life story: We love trains and think it’s time that the English-speaking world reacquired a taste for them too.
In case we failed to make our point over the preceding 161 pages, we love trains and want to see more of them – everywhere. This might have something to do with the fact that the first time I expressed a career interest to my parents was when I was about two and a half and suggested I wanted to be a train driver. In our drive-way in Winnipeg I used to hitch a series of wagons on the back of my tricycle, don my striped-denim train driver’s hat, gloves and dungarees and embark on my transcontinental journey down to the sidewalk with a rag-tag array of stuffed animals as passengers.
Canada circa 1970 had two main rail operators – Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railways (CPR). A weekend wasn’t complete if I didn’t get the chance to go to the central station and wave at the east and westbound trains as they pulled out of the station. I moved to Montréal a few years later and while my fascination was moving to all things military related (by this point I was keen on being a fighter pilot) my interest in life on the rails was rekindled with the launch of the bulbous, slightly bloated looking TurboTrain. With its aircraft-style interiors and tilting technology it was Canada’s answer to the bullet train and I couldn’t wait for the chance to press my nose against the window for the journey down to Toronto. When the opportunity came, it didn’t disappoint – we made the trip in just four hours from downtown Montréal to Toronto’s Union Station.
The TurboTrains left service in the 1980s and were replaced by less exciting diesel powered train sets. Twenty years on the journey is now 15 minutes longer than it used to be, and while the main highway linking Montréal and Toronto becomes more traffic-clogged, there’s little serious talk of a highspeed link.
Like Christmas, the Anglo world doesn’t seem to fancy trains. Just as political correctness in forms mild and militant almost killed off the holiday this year (I’m writing this column on 18 December from my desk in a very un-festive London that’s only matched by equally dull Melbourne, New York and Toronto), a lack of vision and simple common sense has left the US, Canada, Australia and the UK in their cars and circling in ever-crowded skies while their train beds stand ready and waiting. I’m not sure why the world’s biggest English-speaking countries fell out of love with trains but it’s time they took another look – and fast.
The New York-Chicago route is made for a fully connected, well-catered, deluxe overnight service that could allow travellers to finish dinner at the Waverly Inn, zip up to Penn Station and board carriages for a journey that would get them into the centre of the Windy City in time for a breakfast meeting.
Toronto-Montréal-New York could become a new power triangle with a little help from Bombardier and a generous dose of political will. Melbourne-Sydney would be a power pairing to match Tokyo-Osaka with the appropriate overland link but it’s also suffering from the Anglo ailment that sees trains as vehicles for getting back to the suburbs with longer stretches meant for the less developed world.
In the UK the situation is more acute because the crumbling infrastructure actually links up with highly oiled, super- speedy networks belonging to countries that think the future is all about moving people and cargo over rails. I was quite excited about the opening of the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras in part because it’s less than a 10-minute cab ride from our HQ, in part because the King’s Cross area can still use all the help it can get in the way of urban redevelopment.
Having sampled it a full month after it threw open its doors, it still feels like it’s in soft opening phase. While it deserves a few stars for opening on time, the experience has left me wondering why they also didn’t keep the Waterloo operation open (surely London’s big and congested enough to offer stations on either side of the river) and whether they’d given any consideration to how hundreds of passengers speaking myriad languages might navigate their way through the station.
All of this might just pass for acceptable if the experience on board Eurostar was something to get excited about. Instead of seizing the opportunity of the speedier link (the shortened journey time does make Paris-London feel like a commute) to overhaul the whole product, the overpriced premium service is still cramped, stained and a little stinky. Standard class can only be worse.
The English-speaking world needs to get off the bus (or plane in some cases) and get on a cobra-nose Shinkansen for a taste of what improves the lives of an increasingly mobile public. In the meantime we’re going to be chatting to JR East, SBB and DB about launching a programme of special Monocle club cars (think interiors by Intentionallies, bespoke lighting from Santa & Cole, a library of the best reading material and a barman trained by our friends at the Kita Aoyama Salon) as a thank you for all those subscribers and very regular readers who’ve supported us over the past year. Up next is our first anniversary issue, if you have any questions, comments or red hot tips, drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.