Maple leaves on the line

Image of Tyler Brûlé

If you’ve had the misfortune of travelling through some of the US’s bigger, busier airports this week, you’ll no doubt have noticed that all of those threatened cuts to the country’s creaking transport infrastructure have started to bite – and rather hard.

As if the situation wasn’t painful enough at the conveyor belt and X-ray machines, it’s now lurched to a sputtering halt. Already we had the comical scene of normally sensible people lining up in stocking feet (the seriously daft are the ones who go barefoot in airports that haven’t seen their floors get a proper cleaning since 1972), and toting multiple plastic bins full of the contents of their travel bags. This has now deteriorated from being a process that moved along with the jerky pace of a stop-motion sketch to something that resembles a frozen frame from a manga comic chronicling the collapse of civil society circa 2013.

At a time when the US government should be doing everything it can to get people out meeting, greeting and doing deals, the situation at larger hubs has become so bad that even the most intrepid entrepreneur would want to think thrice about heading out to the airport for a business trip.

For short-haul trips there’s nothing better than a good train to get you from one city centre to the next. A few weeks ago I spent about 10 days getting to appointments across Germany and Switzerland exclusively on the train. I found myself looking forward to arriving at various stations a little early to stock up on magazines, buy a few snacks, replenish my toiletry kit and then stroll to the platform two or three minutes before the whistle sounded.

Every time I’m in northeastern North America, I always ponder how much more pleasant (and more welcoming) the whole experience would be if there were serious rail connections between the most important cities.

You might recall that the Obama administration almost rode into office on a gleaming, pointy-nose high-speed train a little over four years ago. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood made high-profile trips to a variety of countries (Spain, France, Japan) to drum up support for the merits of high-speed rail lines. Newspaper pages devoted considerable space to elaborate maps and infographics illustrating the rail links that would get Americans out of tired airport terminals, and their cars, and on to special trains that would potentially zip along at speeds in excess of 300km per hour.

Sadly little – if any – of that high-speed track has been laid and the reputation of rail travel was dealt a further blow last week when Canada’s security services arrested two men who were allegedly plotting to attack the joint Amtrak/VIA Rail service that runs between Toronto and New York.

Indeed, many have questioned the intelligence of the would-be plotters as they could hardly have chosen a less high-profile, ho-hum target than the ratty diesel train-sets that rumble up across the farmland of New York state and Ontario.

On Tuesday I flew into Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, and as our Bombardier Q-400 was making its final turn on the approach to the island airport in Lake Ontario, I spotted one of VIA’s trains, with its maple leaf livery, rumbling southbound. I immediately thought of one of the great missed opportunities for Canadian industry and innovation. En route to my hotel, I spotted another clapped-out VIA train chugging through the rail yards that cut through Toronto’s core and imagined how different things might be if Canada really wanted to take the lead in high-speed rail and also show the neighbours (Washington) how to connect people at lightning speed on smooth sets of steel track.

How is it that one of the world’s wealthiest countries – which also happens to be home to Bombardier (the world’s biggest rail transport company) – has not managed to turn itself into a showcase for high-speed rail? Have neither the government nor the private sector ever thought about the economic benefits (not to mention soft power value) that might have come with 90-minute connections between Montreal and Toronto? Or three-hour journey times from Toronto to New York and Chicago?

On Thursday I had to make a trip up to Ottawa, and on my way down to the hotel lobby, I thought about how pleasant it would have been to just keep walking and head straight for the platform at Union Station, board a sharp looking Bombardier train, settle into a deep seat and rocket up to the nation’s capital.

Thankfully, Toronto does at least have a downtown airport that makes short hops quite easy, but this government (or the next) might want to think about a fresh boost to the country’s infrastructure – and unveiling a project that could give the country’s image a boost on the innovation front.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.