They started shooting season four of Downton Abbey last month. This is good news for the roughly 14 million fans in Britain and the US who have become addicted to the costume drama.

There have been a number of casting changes. Siobhan Finneran who played Sarah, the evil maid is gone. She will be heading up the cast of her own ITV drama series. Her part was confusing to me. I never figured out why she hated Bates so much and her conspiratorial relationship with the gay footman Thomas was never adequately explained.

Shirley MacLaine will return as lady Grantham’s free spirited American mother, and Dame Kiri Janette Te Kanawa, the decorative Maori diva will be introduced as a Grantham house guest. I like the valet Bates, who, oddly, is the romantic lead, at least for the downstairs contingent. He is played by Brendan Coyle and gives hope to chubby men everywhere.

The most dominant character in the series is the magnificent Carson the butler, played by Jim Carter with his rich bass voice and leonine features. To get an appreciation of Carter’s acting range, rent a copy of the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love. There, Carter plays a member of an Elizabethan theatrical troupe and is variously seen dressed as a clown, and in one instance appears in drag.

If you have never watched Downton Abbey you probably haven’t read this far into this article; but in case you have, rent the DVD’s. But beware — the series is habit-forming.

Don McIver’s new book on the Desjardins Canal railway disaster in 1857 might seem like an unusual topic for a respected Canadian economist. But what you get in “End of the Line” is the fascinating, if ultimately doomed, corporate history of the Great Western Railway.

The Great Western was the brainchild of a number of Ontario capitalists including Sir Alan MacNab of Dundurn Castle fame in Hamilton. The Great Western was to connect Niagara Falls with Windsor, providing a shortcut between New York and Detroit. A second line connected Hamilton and Toronto.

McIver’s book is centred on the disaster — a passenger train heading to Hamilton from Toronto plunged through the wooden swing bridge over the Desjardins Canal at Hamilton killing sixty people including, ironically, the railway’s general contractor, whose shoddy workmanship and corner-cutting probably led to the crash in the first place. Railway construction in the 1800’s was much like the Internet in the 1990’s — vastly overbuilt relative to the amount of business available, and an industry that attracted all kinds of scoundrels and get-rich-quick types.

The book is filled with detail and clearly shows that the Desjardin disaster was avoidable; that a combination of poor design and putting the rail line into service before it was ready contributed to the disaster.

Another problem that eventually led to the demise of the Great Western was that it operated at a different track gauge than other railways in North America, resulting in incompatibility and the need to transfer goods. Eventually the Great Western retrofitted its tracks but the exercise drained its finances and the insolvent line was eventually snapped up by the better-financed Grand Trunk Railway. (An interesting note for fans of Downtown Abbey, mentioned earlier —in the story line, it was the ill-considered investment of the entire family fortune in the Grand Trunk Railway that nearly wiped out the Grantham’s).

John Best has had a lengthy media management career, in television and radio and now print. As Vice President, News at CHCH in Hamilton, John oversaw a significant expansion of the news operation. He founded Independent Satellite News, Canada’s only television news service providing national content to Canadian independent TV stations. John is a frequent political commentator on radio and television, a documentary producer and author of a book and numerous articles on historical and political subjects. John is a past recipient of the New York Festival’s award for writing in the International TV category.

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