Bikes and rail OK in Italy

I am now back after our epic ride to Bologna, and the train journeys further into Italy – to Terontola – and then back. It was a remarkably trouble free journey with, between the four of us, one broken chain, one puncture [in Paris on the way back] and no falls, collisions or major mishaps. We did not, for the record, wear helmets.

When I last blogged, we were about to get on the train to Terontola from Bologna which involved three changes. Although I had bought tickets – you can take a bike anywhere on the railways for 3 euros 50 – I was still apprehensive about getting on the train and encountering stroppy guards who would not let us on.

I could not have been more wrong. The first train, which started at Bologna, was going to Prato Centrale – does Prato really have a non-Centrale? –  and was a modern Alstom eletric unit with one of those bendy-bus type platforms between the two coaches. The dedicated bike space was already taken up by two bikes, but the guard simply pushed up the drop seats on the disabled section, told someone to move, and we had our space for four bikes.

The change at Prato was a bit more fraught. We had to carry the pannier laden bikes down a Sottopassagio and up again, and then when the train arrived we were at the wrong end. The other two cyclists cottoned on quicker, and simply jumped on their bikes and hurtled down the platform – I just gasped at amazement, and thought of the reaction this would elicit on a British station platform from the ‘elf and safety trained staff. We, meanwhile, dumped our bikes in whatever corridor we could find, and reached Firenze without trouble.

There it was even easier. The train was in the platform and had lots of bike spaces in the back, although we had to wheel them through the last carriage because the rear door was stuck. But by and large the whole experience was trouble-free largely because the Italian attitude is mostly so much more relaxed than in the UK.

At Terontola, too, on the way back there was no problem. On the platform we were at the wrong end of the train – I had guessed wrongly that the train probably did not turn round at its other terminus – but the guard simply said ‘fondo‘ and we jumped on our bikes, cycling to the other end of the platform, and they actually waited for us – no delay minutes to pay, I presume.

The return on the sleeper train from Bologna to Paris was a different matter.  We had been warned that they did not take bikes without being dismantled and put in bike bags, so we spent a happy hour on the platform taking off the wheels and bits and pieces like the pedals, and putting them in the big plastic bags – £6 99 from Wiggle – that I had despatched out to Italy in advance.

Getting four bikes and our panniers, and ourselves, into the compartment was not easy. I had booked a compartment for four, rather than six, knowing we would need one to ourselves, and it certainly was the right decision. We had hoped naively that maybe we could have left a bike in the corridor somewhere but the guard made clear that this was absolutely forbidden. So one bike went on the luggage rack, one under the seat and two on the bottom bunks, while we dropped down the middle bunks. It was a tight squeeze and Deborah had to sleep on the top bunk with a bike hanging perilously over her head.

We reassembled the bikes at Paris without too much trouble, and rode over to the Gare du Nord to find out  when we had to register our bikes for the return journey – two hours in advance was the answer, even though we could not actually check in for the train until an hour in advance. So it was off to a very expensive but pleasant cafe opposite the station. It cost 25 euros each, but at least we did not have to dismantle the bikes – it would have been free if we had, but then we would have had to carry them onto the train and the thought of more spanner and screw driver work certainly made the 25 euros cost worthwhile. But while at least now Eurostar take bikes, which they did not do until lobbying by the CTC, the two hour rule and the cost do need looking at.

  • Matt Tempest

    If it’s any consolation, *all* the cafes near Gard du Nord are expensive, and a lot of them aren’t particularly nice.

  • Derek L

    Sounds like a good trip Christian. I was in Italy a few weeks back and took the opportunity to ride a few of the TrenItalia Interregio trains. Although the train staff appeared somewhat surly, never a smile or a “Thank you” when handed a ticket for checking, but on being asked for information or assistance, were helpful and friendly.

    On one service a US lady sitting nearby had failed to validate the ticket before boarding the train, and despite the dire threats that appear on the platforms as to the effect of failing to do so, the conductor made light of it, telling her she should have done so with a forgiving smile, and then made a note on the ticket, presumably for the benefit of any other train staff checking the ticket later.

    I was impressed by the smooth ride on what are quite clearly well-maintained tracks even on relatively minor lines. The coaching stock I saw on Interregio is clearly elderly (70’s, I think) often with crazed exterior paintwork. Clean inside, and many refurbished. There seemed to be, in contrast, a number of new locomotives used in push-pull mode on most sets.

    Fare structure simple – based on mileage, so getting a ticket from the machines is fairly intuitive, and ticket office staff are helpful, even where there is a language barrier. The fares are low by UK standards.

    One of the trains was delayed by about 15 minutes, but I noted that they held the connection required, which was useful, as otherwise it would have been a two hour wait somewhere nowhere.

    I kind of wonder about the economics, though. Long (8 or more coaches), not that full when I rode them, and apparently well maintained track, with the low fares suggest something of a level of subsidy.

  • Sean Baggaley

    Italian rail is indeed subsidised, but the “privatisation-lite” method followed by the Italians (and pretty much every other EU nation aside from the UK) also meant it wasn’t shattered into lots of tiny little inefficient pieces either.

    As for “elderly” stock: try the “Roma-Civitacastellana-Viterbo” line sometime. They’ve recently bought some brand new trains, but until a couple of years ago, it wasn’t unusual to find a train composed of the original stock built for the line’s opening…

    … in 1932!

    (They’ve kept some of the stock for services during the tourist season; it’s a very scenic—which is a polite way of saying “tortuous”—line.)

  • Adam

    There are actually three stations in Prato, so technically it can be called Prato Centrale. The other two can be found on the Viareggio to Florence line before it joins up with the main line just before Prato Centrale. Living as I do near to this line, it is worth mentioning that perhaps the town of Montecatini could win a prize for the two stations closest to each other on the same track. Montecatini Centro and Montecatini Terme are less than half a mile apart, it is possible to actually run (or cycle of course) between the two should one miss the train at the original station, and still catch it !!

  • Tim

    The Paris-Italy night trains have a poor reputation, and not just for their cycle facilities – was it remotely on time?

  • No! About 45 minutes late. It has been late every time I have used it, and I heard a regular traveller on it say it never gets in on time, even though the schedule seems pretty lax. I presume it is given a low priority. It was very full, though, and is well used even out of season, but is not a good advertisement for train travel.

  • Dan

    Man is Seat 61 (.com) has even gone as far as to cease to recommend the night trains to Italy – which if you read his stuff is celarly with much regret. This seems to be down to poor service, poor timekeeping and other related issues. He seems to place the blame with the Italian Rail authorities on this (FS) – it is indeed sad.

    Interestign to read your cycle blogs Christian – and your comments onthe other artcle about rural france, ‘France Profonde’ the role of the car and the HS lines in local communities. Of course UK local community shops in rural areas largley seemed to me to die out some time ago – certainly by the mid 80s in many cases (although post office closures in the Major / Blair era was the final nail for many) – the shorter distances to local towns and thus supermarkets combined with them becoming commuter villages much earlier perhaps being the cause – along with the right wing economics that says everything that does not make a profit goes to the wall.

  • David

    The last time I went by this route between Paris and Italy was in 2006, and on day trains; they were also late, but the “excuse” at that time was that the delays were due to the work being undertaken on the Frejus Tunnel.

    Has this work finished yet?

    Something that interested me was that there were still passport checks on these day trains, even though both France and Italy had signed up to the Schengen Agreement. At Paris Gare de Lyon, the train left from one of the platforms outside the train-shed; it was on the left side of the island, and the right side was train-free. It was formed of two TGV-R sets; the front one was a three-voltage set going through to Milano, the rear one a standard two-voltage set operating only as far as Chambery (and – if I remember correctly – with a different train number). Standing across the platform between the two TGV sets was a line of French border police, checking the train tickets and passports/identity cards of those boarding the TGV going through to Italy; and on the way back, Italian police blocked the platform entrance at Milano Centrale, checking tickets/passports of those boarding the Paris train .

    Does something similar happen on the night train?