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Trains in Italy: At the Train Station

Alice Twain

When to Arrive at the Station

Boarding the train, when you are already familiar with the station and the system, takes no more than a few seconds. However, when you are new to a country, things always get more difficult. Even if you don't have to buy the tickets, it is always better to show up at the station at least 20 or 30 minutes before the train's scheduled departure. This will allow you enough time to get familiar with the station, to locate the platform from which the train will depart and, if needed, to buy some food and drinks to take on the train (remember that Espresso, Interregionale, Regionale, and Diretto trains usually don't have bar or a cart from which you can buy food and drinks).

Obviously, the larger the station, the harder it is to do it all, so if you are going to depart from a really small station, you will not need to be there that long in advance: ten minutes will be enough. Yet, for the most part, you will probably be traveling between large cities with large stations like Rome, Florence or Venice. Therefore, you will need to be there in advance. If you have to also get tickets, add at least 15 minutes...just to be extra sure you will not be late.

"I'm always running behind the time, Just like this train,
Shaking into town, With the brakes complaining"
- - Just Like This Train by Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark album, 1974 - -

How to Find Your Train

As in an airport, where flights leave from different gates, in the train stations, trains leave from different tracks. As soon as you arrive at the station, find the list of arrivals and departures. Every station has boards that help locating the trains, plus smaller monitors placed here and there around the station. In main stations, this will be a huge board displayed in front of the tracks, as shown above at the Rome Central Station. In smaller train stations, you may have to look around to find the lists of arrivals and departures.

Reading the Arrival/Departure Boards

Click to see larger image

This photo (click photo to see larger image) shows the list of departures at Rome Central Station. Boards and monitors may look different, but the basic scheme of things is always the same. The first column bears the name of the train's final destination. Then, there is a column bearing subsidiary information; for instance, it may inform you if the train goes through a specific route. The third column shows the type of train. On this board, the red symbols indicate the trains that require payment or a supplement (Intercity, Eurocity) or have mandatory seat reservation and a supplement (Eurostar). The fourth column shows the due time of departure/arrival. The fifth shows the track of arrival or departure. The fifth also shows the expected departure time or the delay (if there is any).

Most boards also have a color code: usually information written in white is definitive, while that written in yellow is not yet definitive. In case you are waiting for a train, wait until the track of departure is confirmed (written in white) before going to the track. If it is written in yellow, it may still change.

Once you have the definitive information about where your train departs from, go to the track. If you have still any doubt about where the right track is (especially if there are any subsidiary tracks, see above), don't be afraid to ask: railway workers are usually extremely informative. In recent years, the main stations also started having small mobile information desks which move from one track to the other. It's basically a guy with a small blue table and a big book. Ask him or any other railway worker.

How to Find Your Train Track

All the stations are designed according to similar plans. Most stations are placed along the tracks (stazione di passaggio, for instance Bologna Centrale). In this case, remember that track 1 will always be the one closer to the station's main entrance. In these stations, for the most part, the important trains depart and arrive at the first tracks (1-4), while local trains depart and arrive at the further away tracks. An exception to this rule is the station in Prato, near Florence, where, due to technical reasons, the Intercity trains use tracks 4-6, while the local trains use tracks 1-3.

Most of the larger cities, though, have stations placed at the origin of the tracks (Centrale and Garibaldi in Milano, Termini in Rome, Santa Lucia in Venice, Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Centrale in Naples). In this case, the tracks are numbered from 1 up from the left to the right. Looking at the tracks, track 1 will be the furthest from you left while the high numbers will be on the extreme right. In these stations, usually, the most important trains depart from the central tracks, while the tracks on the extreme right and left are used for local trains.

In some stations (like Milano Centrale and Firenze Santa Maria Novella), each track has two platforms. In Milano, the narrower one is a service platform not to be used by travelers; in Florence, this platform has become the Eurostar departure platform, so if you are going to take a train from Santa Maria Novella, check which kind of train it is and use the right platform: the Eurostar departures' marked in red or the other one.

Some stations (like Bologna Centrale) also have subsidiary tracks, usually marked "Est" or "Ovest" (east and west) or "Tronco est" and "Tronco ovest". You can expect binario 1 est to be rather far from track 1.

On the platforms, there are also boards that show the same details you can read in the main "departure" board of the station, including delays, for the train that is going to stop (or is already stopped) at that platform. The photo was take in Milano centrale: it shows the platform number, the board that says that the train is headed to Terni. There is also a monitor that shows further details about the train, but these monitors are not available at every station.

How to Validate Your Tickets

Before you board the train, you will need to validate the tickets by stamping them. In this picture, you can see Stephanie at Levanto station, validating her train ticket. A train ticket is not valid for traveling unless it has been stamped just before you get on the train. You can be fined if your ticket is not stamped (see below for more details), so look for these yellow stamping machines before getting on the train. There are usually one or two machines on every platform, plus a few more scattered around the station.

Once you locate a stamping machine, put the ticket in the slot. The big tickets will fit exactly; the smaller ones  (biglietto a fascia chilometrica) must be pressed to the left side of the slot. You don't need to validate them before each train change. Just validate all the tickets you will be using for the train trip at departure.

Not all tickets require validation. Eurostar tickets usually don't, just like seat reservations, since these already bear a date and hour of departure, yet stamping them will not make them invalid, so if you have any doubt stamp them anyhow.

Sometimes, though, you may not be able to find a working validating machine, or you may be late for the train and not have time to validate them. In this case, start looking for a conductor as soon as you get on the train and tell him you couldn't validate them (unless you are traveling on a Eurostar train, which does not need validated tickets since they are already dated). He will validate them for you. If you are found traveling with non-validated tickets, you can expect a substantial penalty of 25 euro per ticket.

How to Determine What Services a Station Provides Ahead of Time

Here's how to check whether a train station has a luggage storage facility. To check whether a train station has luggage storage (Deposito Bagagli in Italian), go to the Trenitalia website http://www.trenitalia.com

  • Select "In the Region"
  • Choose the region that includes the city or town you're interested in
  • Select "Servizi in Stazione"
  • Click on the first letter of the name of the town/city you're interested in.

A table is displayed that shows the services provided at each station. If the service is provided, a bullet is displayed in that column.

For example, for Naples, choose the region Campania, then "Servizi in Stazione," then "N" to display stations whose names begin with N and the services offered at each.


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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