Michael Portillo rides the rails through the history of the US and Canada

No sooner has Great British Railway Journeys come to an end, than the former MP is off to America

Michael Portillo

Nowhere is the “special relationship” between Britain and the USA more special than in New England, which Michael Portillo visits on the latest leg of his Great American Railroad Journeys (weekdays, BBC2, 6.30pm). Did he encounter much friendly joshing from Americans who threw off the colonial yoke more than 240 years ago?


“My impression was rather the opposite,” he says. “When you go to New England you’re struck by how many things are similar, from the Jersey cows to the gentlemen’s clubs in Boston to the accent. These are the Americans who stick closest to their British heritage.”

The trains in the series are as splendid as ever – from Boston’s underground tramway to the cog railway chugging up Mount Washington in New Hampshire. “People say, ‘Are you crazy about railways?’” says Portillo. “I’m really crazy about history.”

At Big Trees Railroad, Santa Cruz
At Big Trees Railroad, Santa Cruz

In the famous watering holes on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, he finds a vast open-flanked structure built to accommodate thousands of worshipping Methodists in the 19th century. In Nantucket, he investigates the whaling industry. “Unbelievable numbers of whales were slaughtered by boats that left Nantucket at a time when the world depended on whale oil for industrial lubricants and lighting. The whale was saved by the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania.”

When they went out into Nantucket Sound, “we got very lucky,” he says. “For about an hour and a half we were in contact with whales and it was massively exciting.” He also goes bobsleighing, dangles from the 553m-high CN Tower in Toronto and is put through his paces by Cirque du Soleil: “I do get pretty thoroughly involved.”

Portillo auditions for Cirque du Soleil
Portillo auditions for Cirque du Soleil

A lot of these adventures are in Canada, which feels hugely different from the US, says Portillo. “If you were making a movie about Paris in the 1780s, you might film it in downtown Montreal. People have an enormous pride in their French culture.”

By contrast, the lavish changing of the guard ceremony outside the Parliament in Ottawa struck him as very British. “The soldiers wear red tunics and bearskins. But on one side they’re receiving their orders in English, and on the other side in French.”

Portillo’s pick…

1. Boston

Michael Portillo loved every aspect of it – not only historic Boston, where he took part in a re-enactment of the Boston Tea Party, but also the modern city – which has cleaned up its act by burrowing underground.

At the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum - a floating museum
At the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum – a floating museum

2. Martha’s Vineyard

Portillo was charmed by the quiet beauty of a place that started out as a religious bolthole. In the 19th century, Methodists would pitch tents there and eventually built cottages, which are now highly sought after. “The cottages are very pretty and have been beautifully painted,” he says.

3. Montreal

Portillo was excited by the Frenchness of Quebec culture – in particular, Montreal. From a distance it looks like an American city, but much more European close up. Expect the French language to be spoken and French cuisine to be served.


Great American Railroad Journeys begins on Monday 22 January, BBC2, 6.30pm