Italian trains no longer on time

Having a right wing government with fascists as part of the coalition does not seem to have helped Italian railways this time. Having just spent a couple of weeks there picking up and dropping off people from railway stations, their universal feedback was that the trains were always ten minutes late – or indeed more – except in the one instance when my friend Liam was trying to make a connection and inevitably the train left on time.

Moreover, the schedules were so bad – we have become accustomed in this country to regular clockface timings on most routes and the lack of them in Italy is a real deterrent to using the train. I dropped  my daughter off at Terontola, the mid station between Florence and Rome, expecting that there would be an hourly service to the capital – which there is after 10 40. But between 8 12 and 10 40, trains there were none! It goes to show that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

The high speed line, however, looks very good, running along the motorway for much of the route between Rome and Milan, including through some spectacular tunnels in the Apennines. However, there were remarkably few trains on it, and even when the full schedule is implemented, it seems that frequencies will still be quite low. The interesting time will be next year when the private rival to the state railways starts operating with its Alstom trains that look like Darth Vadar from the front – there is a picture in my new book which is coming out at the end of next month.

  • Adrian Roberts

    Ha Christian,
    You expect the trains to run on time in Italia! You need a strike timetable if you venture there.
    This is the country where the printed departure sheets have symbols to indicate “this train will normally run 10 mins late” or 20 and up. The evening high speed from Florence to Milan regulary runs 40 late, so there’s no need to rush……
    Stations that have a relatively spartan timetable often have many platforms and an abundance of sidings. Everything seems to be done on a grand scale. Engines, sidings, shunting, wagons everywhere at wayside stations – just like it used to be in here years ago. And the fares are cheap, in fact incredibly cheap.
    I went from Verona recently and the train – all compartment stock and 10 cars with loco was packed to the doors. It was like south eastern on a bad day. I thought to myself, oh God, bang goes breakfast on the train in this incredible crush – but no. The trolley man made his way using a bicycle bell to signal his arrival. Everyone wanted tiny ristrettos and he cheerfully eased along where a British trolley dolly would have given up a long time be,fore had a breakdown and booked into a clinic.
    I had a sensible sized expresso and pastry from what seemed like an entire bread shop atop the thing. Gratsi gratsi gratsi, a ding of the bell and his little trolley with large 12 inch bike wheels at the front and little wheels at the back was absorbed into the heaving throng ahead. Marvelous. The train arrived on time in Venice too.

  • Italy has almost 100% electrification, far more TGV-grade infrastructure, and much cheaper trains than the UK.

    The scale of the rail network’s electrification is by necessity: Italy has few natural resources like coal or gas. Even electricity generation on a national scale is limited to geothermal and hydro-electric. Most of its electricity is imported. (Urban Italians only get 6KW/h to play with. Brits get almost double that. And we pay a hell of a lot less for it too.)

    The reason for building all that new high-speed track is simple: the old lines are simply too slow and have limited capacity. There are two lines from Rome to Viterbo, for example. The distance as the crow flies is only about 65 miles or so, yet the fastest rail service at present takes around *two hours* to cover the distance, because the lines have to snake round, through and over the hills and mountains between the two cities.

    When these lines were originally constructed—the “Roma Nord” route was only converted from an on-street single-track tram route in the 1930s—there was negligible competition from the equally narrow, twisting and steep roads.

    In the 1960s and ’70s, however, that road network has seen massive investment. The civil engineering of some of the motorways was simply epic. But Italians haven’t *just* focused on roads. They’ve improved a lot of rail routes—the Valle Aurelia and Roma Nord lines to Viterbo were both double-tracked to provide a metro-type section to the outskirts of Rome. (The former was also electrified; it’s the same line that serves the Vatican and was entirely single-track until 10 years ago.)

    Unfortunately, many of Italy’s older lines were built as single track. There are similar problems to improving capacity in cities like London: people have built right up to the railways, on land which was open countryside when the line was constructed. The only way to improve capacity on these sections would require some truly heroic engineering. If you’re going to spend that kind of money on a railway with more curves than straight lines, you might as well start anew and build a line you can run fast trains on.

    Incidentally, the new TAV (“Treno ad Alta Velocità”—the Italian translation of “TGV”.) line between Milan and Bologna is intended to take trains onto the St. Gotthard Base Tunnel and beyond. That tunnel isn’t due to open until 2017.

  • Simon

    I’m curious though, in wondering whether or not the Italian rail operators are as readily keen as we Brits do when falling over themselves to ‘apologise for any inconvenience….’ every time a train is late.

    Bet they don’t! Makes me want to live in Italy now!!

  • James van Santen

    I have been travelling to and within Italy every year for 6 years now, and during that time the most obvious feature of the Italian railway system is that the trains run late. All the time. And the long-distance ones are the worst, with the Eurostar Italia-operated services the worst of those. Never allow less than an hour and a half for a connection from one long-distance service into another!

  • “I’m curious though, in wondering whether or not the Italian rail operators are as readily keen as we Brits do when falling over themselves to ‘apologise for any inconvenience….’ every time a train is late.”

    Italy never went through an industrial revolution as such. Even the railways came quite late—the first opened in the 1860s. The country has few natural resources, with negligible coal, oil and gas reserves. Domestic electricity supply is either 6Kwh (in cities) or 3Kwh in villages, small towns and other rural areas. (This is why Italians don’t have electric kettles or toasters, and tend to use low-voltage lights everywhere.) This is still very much an agricultural country, with farming still a major industry in its own right. Italians still expect an office job to last them for life, with all the effects you’d expect from such a “live to work” approach to corporate and civil service bureaucracies.

    Poor rail timekeeping can also be attributed to the network’s history and the upgrade projects which are in progress to rectify its more annoying deficiencies. Unlike the UK, which—despite Beeching’s best efforts—still retains *some* diversionary routes, Italy has almost none, with many secondary routes being single-track and pretty much useless for express services. This is why a north-south TAV is being constructed in the first place: Rome to Milan currently takes over four hours using the classic route, yet the distance between the two cities is comparable to that of London to Newcastle.

    Italy’s rail infrastructure is old, built as cheaply as possible as Italy wasn’t a major economic power back then. Sharp curves and steep gradients abound in the country’s mountainous terrain. (The northern plains have always had decent connections with each other as their terrain is much easier to build through, so east-west journey times in this region are nowhere near as bad.)

    Even with Italy’s infamous traffic, road travel is often quicker than rail: the motorways were built much later than the railways and took advantage of advances in civil engineering. (And, of course, rubber tyres can climb much steeper gradients than steel wheels.) As the government heavily subsidises public transport, there’s little incentive to provide anything other than a basic service. There’s little competition, and not much opportunity for it either.

    The upshot of all this is that Italy’s railways bear a closer resemblance to those in the US, where long trains at low frequencies are preferred over shorter, more frequent trains.

    In fairness, Italy does retain a strong railfreight sector.

  • Correction:

    “live to work” should be “work to live”.