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Trains in Italy: Introduction

Alice Twain

Trains compared to Planes

Levanto train station, near the Cinque Terre, September 2003

Traveling by train is cheaper and often faster than traveling by both car and airplane, although there are a few exceptions. Airplanes are competitive with trains when it comes to travel from the extreme north to the extreme south of Italy. Eurostar trains connect Milan and Naples in 6.5 hours. By airplane, considering all, traveling from Milan to Naples may take some 4 hours and a half: only two hours less, but the airplane ticket is much more costly. Yet, traveling just a bit further south boosts the train travel time to 10 or 12 hours, which makes airplanes suddenly more convenient (unless you are really traveling on a budget).

Trains compared to Car Rental

As for the car, especially for a tourist who also needs to pay the rental (or leasing), train travels turn out to be much cheaper. But there are areas of Italy, for instance rural Tuscany, where the railway network is underdeveloped: few lines, fewer slow trains and stations placed far from the villages. In this case, being able to rent a car at least for part of the stay turns out to be a good idea because it allows a measure of freedom that is not allowed by trains. It is true that in such areas there are usually bus networks that partially help, but these networks are not well organized and hard to navigate for someone who is not a native of the area and who lacks a direct knowledge of the system.

"For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.
I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
- - Travels with a Donkey, R.L. Stevenson, 1878 - -

History of Italian Trains

The reason for the irregular state of development of the Italian railway network dates back to the very origins of Italian railways. Until the middle of the 19th century, Italy was still divided between several small states. Each one of them had a different approach to economics and, therefore, to public transportation. The very first Italian railway was the Napoli-Portici; yet the southern Regno delle due Sicilie, with Naples as a capital, was basically an underdeveloped agricultural state and this one railway was meant more as an addendum to the luxury of the court (the king's summer palace was in Portici), than an effective way of moving people and goods, and it did not foster the growth of a railway network.

On the other hand, the northern states, economically more dynamic and with a fast developing industrial capitalism, rapidly built railway networks of their own, though often enough lacking connections between one state and the other.

In his Italian travelogue, the writer Herman Melville tells that for traveling from Milan to Venice he had to leave the train in Treviglio (near Bergamo), take a horse-drawn coach and travel by coach for several hours before being able to resume traveling by train.

As Italy was unified, in 1871, the Savoia kings helped the railway network to develop, but southern Italy and some areas of central Italy stayed several steps behind, and it still is.

Nevertheless, trains are the most efficient way to travel between cities and towns in Italy.

Historic Train Rides

A few years ago Italian railways started scheduling special trains, sometimes on unused tracks, and using historical cars and locomotives, which include steam trains with the wooden "centoporte" cars from the late XIX and early XX century. These trains are not regular "travelers" services and are organized by several organizations other than Trenitalia: railways companies, volunteer associations, train operators, sponsors and specialized press which rent the cars and the drivers. Trips on these trains often include scheduled stops with wine or food tasting, visits to museums and other places of touristic and cultural interest, and meals. As a consequence, the tickets for these trains will not be available at ticket offices, since they are usually sold by the organizations which planned them.

These trains are an unusual experience for the travelers in Italy and the Italians as well, often offering a brand new way to visit places that would otherwise be reachable only by car. There is also the emotion of traveling on restored classic trains.

www.railtouritalia.com/railtouritalia_en/indexen.htm: Historical train information can be found on RailtourItalia, which lists all the trains for the upcoming three months and also offers a wealth of information about this way of visiting Italy.


Written by Alice Twain, a regular on the Slow Travel Forums. Alice is Italian and lives in Milan. Read her blog in Italian: A Typesetter's Day 3.0. See her Slow Travel Member page.

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