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Trains in Italy

March 29, 2010

While being on study abroad in the tiny hill-town of Castiglion Fiorentino, along the main north-south mainline between Rome and Florence, I’ve had a lot of time to experience a rail network that is working at its full capacity for both freight and passengers. Due to that, FS-Trenitalia is the busiest railroad I’ve ever seen. Railroads back home in America  hardly even compare, even if they do in all likelihood move more tonnage every year, over longer distances.

Passenger trains here are classified by three types: Regional, Intercity, and Eurostar. Regional and Intercity trains are the “local” and “express” trains that use the original mainline that has the most stations. The regional trains have a mixed variety of equipment, which also varies in quality. The worst cars are old commuter-style cars with subway-style folding doors that make all kinds of noise in tunnels. The more pleasant cars are the ones built like traditional long-distance passenger cars, with doors at the ends of the car and roomier seating. Regional trains are generally graced with graffiti in varying intensity. They also operate as push-pull trains, with a locomotive at one end and a control car at the other.

 

Regional trains lined up at Venice's Santa Lucia station.

The Intercity trains tend to have cars built compartment style with a corridor down one side, and can get cramped and stuffy after sharing a 6’x6′ space with five other people for 6 hours or more. If you’re not desperately trying to save money, a 1st class ticket will probably get you some extra breathing room. The Intercity trains only stop at the major stations and junctions, so are a little faster than Regional trains. Since they travel for such long distances, they run as normal trains with just a locomotive at the front end.

The Eurostar trains are the high-speed trains that reach 250 kph and use a special high-speed bypass line for most of their routes. They tend to cut travel times in half, but can be three times as expensive as a Regional ticket, and require a reservation several days in advance. Their interiors are the roomiest, with a table that folds out for every group of four seats, even in 2nd class. It is quite an experience to see things literally flash by out the window.

 

The essence of speed.

The best thing about the Italian passenger trains is that they are almost always on time. The only time I’ve heard of a train being more than half an hour late was when the locomotive decided it couldn’t go on and died.

Freight trains seem relatively sparse compared with the United States. The passenger trains outnumber them two to one, most days. The freight trains are also very short compared with ours: 20-30 cars vs. 150 car coal trains. That is partly due to the continuing use of European chain-link couplings, which can’t take the stress of a long train.

 

Freight trains blast through Castiglion at top speed.

The most endearing quality of the Italian rail network for me is the amount of activity and bustle. I feel like I’m getting a glimpse of what the golden days of the railroads in America must have been like. The Trenitalia workforce is huge, with maintenance-intensive electrified track to keep in running order. Big stations are still stations, instead of shopping malls or museums. Some of the conductors even still whistle for the train departure. Plus, the electric locomotives have air whistles instead of horns, lending another pleasant hooting sound to the big station scene.

When I go home, I would miss the bustling, hurrying trains of Italy terribly if it weren’t for one way in which they don’t compare. There are very few grade crossings on the main lines. The olive groves, vineyards and hills are devoid of the classic American sound of a  long, melodic locomotive wail drifting across the landscape. When I return in May, that will be the sound that lets me know I’m home.

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