Simon Calder: Across the Americas in under an hour

The Man Who Pays His Way
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The Independent Travel

How quickly can you travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific? To drive, Jack Kerouac-style, from New York to San Francisco in anything less than three days requires some weapons-grade pharmaceuticals. The propensity of the author of On The Road for stimulants accelerated him to an early grave.

The first European to make the trip between the two greatest oceans had a better plan. In 1501, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had pipped Columbus at the coast when he encountered the territory we now know as Panama. He was a junior seaman under the command of Rodrigo de Bastidas. Twelve years later, Balboa trekked across the neck of the Americas.

Ever since the conquistador took a short walk across a long continent, the country that welds the Americas together has acted as short-cut. Until the first coast-to-coast railway was completed across the US, anyone anxious to get from one ocean to the other without rounding Cape Horn took the Panama short cut.

¿ Impatience was at its height in 1849, during the phenomenon known in Panama as El Gold Rush. Thousands of men were desperate to get from the East Coast of the US to the gold fields of California. The West was still wild, so it was safer to sail south along the Atlantic coast, into the Caribbean and down to Panama. They then walked along the ancient path once used by the Spanish to haul plunder between the oceans. On the Pacific side, the fortune-hunters took another boat north to San Francisco.

Railway technology in the Americas had barely extended beyond Baltimore. But in 1855, long before the Panama Canal sawed through the isthmus, the Trans-Isthmian Railway was completed. It runs from Colon – the Spanish name for Columbus – across the continental divide to Panama City. The arrival station on the Pacific side is known as Balboa, in honour of the first European to cross the continent.

¿ The trans-isthmian survived for more than a century, and was instrumental in completing the Panama Canal – an enterprise that involved shifting the railway's course in several places to avoid it being submerged. In 1989, the Americans invaded Panama to depose General Noriega. In the chaotic aftermath of the attack, the railway closed down.

The locomotives and carriages began to rust away in the sidings, while the jungle started to reclaim the line between the seas. Latin America, like Great Britain, does not have a flawless record at resuscitating railways, so the Trans-Isthmian was written off.

Yet while the UK's rail system continues to crumble, the Central American republic is showing us how infrastructure can be brought back to life. The line has been rescued from a jungle that put some serious leaves on the line, and trains take just 50 minutes between the Pacific and the Atlantic.

The return fare between Colon and Panama City is 25 Balboas; many are the honours showered upon the first European. This, though, is a currency that has no notes; one Balboa is so equal to $1 that the Panamanians don't bother making their own paper money. They use the US dollar instead. Uncannily, $25 was exactly the fare that was charged in the mid-19th century, when the sum was worth about 100 times more.

The economy option is a bus that costs $1 (sorry, one Balboa) each way but takes about three hours, the sort of pace that might suit long-suffering South West Trains or Arriva commuters. At the end of their journey, they end up in Surrey or Cheshire rather than the Pacific Ocean, but at least there are no signs on shops and restaurants in Guildford or Knutsford – as there are in Panama City – reading "Do not enter this business with arms – sorry for any inconvenience."

On the oopposite side of the Pacific, the train that runs through Middle-earth is a fortnight away from extinction, closed down to save cash. The Southland is the most beautiful train ride in New Zealand. It carves through the South Island, which was Middle-earth in the film The Lord of the Rings. The 350-mile journey from Christchurch to Invercargill takes eight hours, through dramatic scenery.

Many people had imagined that the Tolkein-fuelled tourism boom would ensure its survival. But the Southland will be axed on 10 February; you have two weeks to climb aboard.

¿ First Great Western is keen on labels. The train operator serving south-west England and south Wales insists on labelling all its seats "First", even when they are standard class. More helpfully, the company labels the windows of its trains, too.

On these notices, the station between Cardiff and Bristol Parkway is known as Newport (Wales). Is the parenthetical addition intended (a) to reassure passengers that no diversion via the Isle of Wight's largest town is intended; (b) to distinguish the station from the only other Newport on the network, a small station north of Saffron Walden in Essex; (c) to warn off English separatists keen to reclaim the former county of Monmouthshire? Answers on a postcard, or a label.

¿ In Japan, the railways still comprise a source of national pride. I commend the new Japan by Rail (Trailblazer, £12.99). It provides timetables for the Kyoto to Tokyo bullet train: 310 miles in 160 minutes, and that's a stopping train. But Ramsey Zarifeh's book also gives an insight into Japanese culture. In which other country could you seriously opt, in the absence of a left-luggage facility, to leave your baggage in a quiet corner of a station?

The author says that a branch line is the best place to comprehend why the Japanese rail network is so superb.

"Wearing a suit, cap and regulation white gloves, the driver of the smallest local train seems just as meticulous as the driver of a 16-carriage shinkansen [bullet train]. Before the train pulls away from each stop the driver points at the clock as if to confirm the train is indeed leaving on time."

Any similarities with Britain's railways are purely coincidental.

Mr Zarifeh also reports on the latest in-train developments in Japan: dining cars are out, massage and bidets are in. And on the island of Hokkaido, where England will play Argentina in the soccer World Cup in June, "the female staff who serve on-board refreshments wear badges announcing themselves to be 'Twinkle Ladies'".

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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