Michael Portillo is dwarfed by Niagara Falls: “You have that frisson that you may be dashed to pieces at any time”

The politician explores the history of the US rail network in his new BBC2 series - and marvels at the East Coast's mighty river and lakes

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“Whatever you’re expecting, it is more.” Michael Portillo is talking about Niagara Falls, but could be summing up his entire trip to the East Coast. Like so many over the centuries, he was awed by the sheer expanse of America – and he’s not ordinarily the gushing sort.

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Although well acquainted with the big cities from his former life as John Major’s Defence Secretary, it was the first time he’d taken the scenic route, navigating the country’s sprawling network of railroads. One leg in particular left him feeling very small: New York City to Niagara Falls, via the banks of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains.

“The Hudson is magnificent,” he says. “There is some dispute over whether the Rhine or the Hudson is more magnificent but the Hudson is wider. It is a very broad and impressive, navigable river, punctuated by amazing bridges.”


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His train then swooped through the Catskill Mountains, which have inspired their fair share of art and poetry. “That is tremendous scenery: very green, tree-covered, delightful. You can say that some of the origins of American self-confidence are to be found along there. The early American writers and painters depicting that landscape pioneered the distinctive American style in literature and in painting.”

The railroad swings west, away from the Hudson and up to Niagara Falls. It was Portillo’s first encounter with the three thunderous waterfalls that straddle the border between Ontario and upstate New York. “You can visit it – as I did – from the land, from a boat and from the air. Each time you’re more blown away by the extraordinary power of the waters.

Catskill Mountains, New York

“The boat is the most impressive – the waters create this fantastic fog that you sail through. The waters are being churned up under the boat and it’s quite rocky, so the skill of the boat’s captain is formidable, too. You have that frisson that you may be dashed to pieces at any time.”

Portillo also disembarked at Lake Erie, one of five Great Lakes downstream from Niagara Falls. “Lake Erie is about 200 miles long – relatively small but everything is relative! The Great Lakes are beyond European comprehension.” (It’s 241 miles to be exact – 90 miles longer than the maximum width of the English Channel.)

If you don’t stop to whizz down a zip line in the mountains, or to sample a drop of Albany ale, as Portillo does, the journey from New York city to Niagara takes just under seven and a half hours and clocks in at 400 miles. “In the UK or Europe that would be a considerable journey, but in the US it is as nothing. When you look at the map, you can scarcely detect your movement across it because it’s such a vast continent.”

The railway played a crucial role in harnessing that vastness, allowing the “new world” to become the world’s richest nation. “Before the railroads, you’ve got a city in Chicago and a city in New York, which are about two weeks apart if you’re travelling by boat. And people are saying, ‘How on earth do you keep a country together that’s so big?’ The railroads arrive in the nick of time and reduce the journey time from Chicago to New York to about two days, initially.”

For Portillo, the scenery is a boon, but the chief pleasure of these programmes is luxuriating in the history. He politely denies being a train buff – although he did admire America’s splendidly uniformed conductors, who hark back to the golden age of rail travel.


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As for the stations, he found that they divided into two categories. “The magnificent, such as Grand Central Station in New York or Union Station in Washington DC, and the completely rundown. Both tell a story: the magnificent tell you that the railroad made enormous amounts of money; the inadequate stations tell you that much of the development of the railroads was actually about freight, not passengers.”

Portillo’s fellow passengers weren’t in the least taken aback by the Brit travelling with an 1879 handbook (he swapped his trusty Bradshaw’s for Appleton’s General Guide to the US). Surely his rainbow wardrobe raised a few eyebrows?

“Erm, it didn’t seem to faze them. I think it’s quite hard to faze Americans. Everyone I spoke to had an energy and enthusiasm; they have this extraordinary self-confidence.”

As memorable as Niagara Falls or the Great Lakes obviously were, it was a piece of paper in Philadelphia that will probably stay with Portillo longest: the Declaration of Independence.

“It was written in 1776 and is one of the most idealistic and ambitious political documents ever written, with its belief in the equality of man, life, liberty and happiness. So it was very moving to go to the birthplace of that fantastic ideology.”

Great American Railroad Journeys begins on Monday 1st February on BBC2 at 6.30pm

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Read more: 6 of the best… US train journeys