• The very English Michael Portillo heads to the United States to try out their railroad system for size. (SBS)Source: SBS
It's not all about the trains... though that is obviously a huge part of it.
Shane Cubis

31 Aug 2016 - 12:51 PM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2019 - 12:44 PM

Trains revolutionised the way we live, work, fight wars and tut at teenagers who are speaking too loudly. But they also opened up broad new vistas of travel, allowing for a very specific kind of journey across the world’s most impressive landscapes.

There are no prizes for guessing what Great American Railroad Journeys is about, but there are five prizes for watching.


The machines are magnificent

Let’s get the easy one out of the way – unless you’re planning a continent-spanning choo-choo vacation across America, this is the best way to see everything the country has to offer, from Niagara Falls to Baltimore. And if you are planning a continent-spanning choo-choo vacation across the US, watching this show is the best research you can do outside those online forums where everyone gets bogged down in arguments over which gauge is better, 5'3" or 4'8½".

Michael Portillo conducts a mean trip

Host Michael Portillo is the consummate conductor for these rail trips – he’ll definitely cry “All aboard!” if you ask him to. A former Conservative MP who came up under Margaret Thatcher, his trademark is using old travel guides as a source of where to go, and this time his yellowed book of choice is 1879's Appleton’s General Guide to the United States and Canada. It’s a fascinating way to contrast the modern-day nation with the country as it existed during rail’s heyday.


It'll be great see what Americans make of him

If you’ve watched any of Portillo’s other train-trip series, you’ll know the garishly clad host spends some time making often-awkward small talk with other passengers. He’s very formal and “British”, so aside from everything else, it’s going to be fun to watch him converse with commuting Americans.

It isn't just about the trains

Some of you are still riled up about the gauge issue I mentioned up there. For the rest of us, one of the main drawcards of travelling is the range of destinations you can visit. In GARJ (as the cool guys call it), Portillo takes in the sights of America’s greatest cities, sampling their cuisine and learning how their histories shaped (and were shaped by) the expansion of rail.

Okay, it's also about the trains

Obviously you could get to most of these places on a flight, and much more quickly. But travelling by rail is an experience worth taking in itself, as anyone who has watched the countryside roll by from the comfort of a window seat will tell you between games of backgammon.

Plus, Portillo goes beyond the usual high-end, vintage options to explore rail as is it today – in the first episode, he criss-crosses New York by subway. It’s fascinating, even if you... righto, that’s enough: 5'3" is clearly better.


more on the guide
And the awards for best appearances by a moving train in a TV show or movie go to...
Some of these trains can cry on cue...
5 reasons you should be watching Great Continental Railway Journeys
All aboard!