Tuesday. 10/11/2020

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Carlota Rebelo

Train of command

As the producer of Monocle 24’s programme about cities, The Urbanist, I’ve been unable to hide my enthusiasm over what a Biden presidency might mean for one particular issue of national importance: the future of the US rail network. After all, it’s no secret how much Biden loves trains, particularly Amtrak, the long-distance US passenger-rail operator that has been his trusty companion during his 47-year political career.

For decades Biden (pictured) commuted by train between his job as a senator in Washington and his home in Wilmington, Delaware, earning him the nickname “Amtrak Joe”. In 1987 he kicked off his first presidential run at Wilmington’s train station; in 2009 he rode Amtrak to Washington for Barack Obama’s inauguration; he then left the capital in similar fashion after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. As a presidential candidate this September, Biden toured Ohio and Pennsylvania on a specially chartered Amtrak train dubbed the “Build Back Better Express”.

Biden’s practical support for rail has never waned either. Ten years ago in an article for Amtrak’s onboard magazine, Arrive, he illustrated the importance of investing in rail as a way to connect communities and “carry us all into a leaner, cleaner, greener 21st century”. On the campaign trail last year he promised, as president, to “spark the second great railroad revolution”. His campaign has since unveiled a $1.3 trn (€1.1 trn) infrastructure plan, promising a safer and faster rail system that is beneficial to all – including in the fight against climate change.

Along with most transport providers this year, Amtrak has been hard hit by the pandemic. But its 2050 vision includes an ambitious expansion plan for new corridors connecting small and midsize cities and addressing the decades-old challenge of cross-country travel. For Amtrak to survive it needs someone at the helm who understands the benefits of rail travel and, dare I suggest, introduces “Train Force One” to the stable of presidential vehicles.

Health / Global

Shot in the arm

Until this year, Mainz-based firm Biontech hadn’t brought a single pharmaceutical product to market. But when its cancer research showed promising applications for coronavirus, Biontech quickly received funding from the German government and partnered with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Yesterday the partnership was catapulted into front-runner status to develop a coronavirus vaccine after it emerged that trials were shown to be 90 per cent effective. Pfizer is now likely to seek fast-track approval from US authorities, while the European Medicines Agency has also been conducting a “rolling review” of its progress. It’s a major breakthrough but patience, as ever, remains a virtue. Though many countries have signed supply deals, next will come the challenge of orchestrating a global roll out and regulatory approval. “The trial has been done in America but it has not been conducted in the UK,” consultant virologist Chris Smith told Monocle 24’s The Briefing. “The [UK] regulator wouldn’t just authorise something by default; they probably want to see some trial data from the UK as well.”

Diplomacy / EU

Common enemy

Germany’s Angela Merkel, Austria’s Sebastian Kurz (pictured, on left) and France’s Emmanuel Macron (pictured, on right) will hold a video conference today as the continent seeks to combat a rise in Islamic extremism. The mini-summit, which will also include EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, comes after Austria and France endured deadly attacks in recent weeks that, among other things, exposed shortcomings in the sharing of EU intelligence.

“Europe’s counterterrorism response is a bit disaggregated at the moment because of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit negotiations,” Michael Clarke, former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, tells The Monocle Minute. “We are effectively seeing a wave of terrorism that is not dissimilar to the sort of lone wolf attacks we witnessed in 2017. It’s important that Europe acts together.” Indeed, as the continent faces some of its toughest challenges in decades, it remains paramount that leaders demonstrate a united and effective response on all fronts.

Politics / Bolivia

Change of tone

Luis Arce was sworn in as the new president of Bolivia this weekend, marking the return to power of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) party. However, Arce’s presidency is expected to differ from that of Bolivia’s former socialist leader, Evo Morales. A former economy minister, Arce (pictured, centre) is seen as less of a firebrand and more of a technocrat; he set a conciliatory tone in a first speech as president that notably avoided mention of Morales himself. Arce said that his priority would be to unite the divided nation, which is still recovering from a deep political and economic crisis as well as the coronavirus pandemic. He is also more likely than Morales to reach out internationally. “Arce has had a good previous relationship with multilateral organisations and the financial sector,” says Filipe Carvalho, a Latin America analyst for the Eurasia Group. The inauguration of Arce could offer some welcome respite for Bolivia after more than a year of political tribulations.

Urbanism / Egypt

Academic award

Egypt’s prime minister, Mostafa Madbouly, has announced a major shake-up of the country’s planning system by stripping local authorities in Cairo (pictured), Giza and Alexandria of the right to issue construction licences. Instead, power will be given to the planning departments at regional universities, which will oversee developments in their respective cities. Although such institutions sometimes supervise planning projects, it’s rare that the authority is devolved to them completely. The autocratic nature of stripping cities of this power is questionable but the idea itself could be a promising one. It’s likely to reduce the time lag between bold urbanist fixes being proposed in academia and their conversion into action. This could result in Egypt’s three biggest metropolises being transformed into living urban-planning laboratories. Other countries would do well to monitor whether the outcome of this academic development model is successful.

M24 / Tall Stories

Unasur Building, Quito

We head to a now-vacant regional hub in Ecuador for the leftist leaders that comprised the Union of South American Nations.

Monocle Films / Netherlands

All around the table: hideaway in the Netherlands

Nestled in a national park near Dalfsen, Lemelerberg Lodge is the place to slow down from a busy lifestyle. Co-founders Marianne Maat and Lucienne Dunnewijk show us how to create a sense of welcome with soft lighting, natural materials and their handmade wares.

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