There are also a number of private lines. FS was the first railway in Europe to be nationalised (or re-nationalised, as it was originally government-owned), in 1908, but is now officially privatised, although the majority of shares remain in the hands of the government. After years of mismanagement and neglect, all aspects of Italian railways are currently being modernised, with huge investment in infrastructure and rolling stock, particularly in new high-speed trains, although the system still has a way to go to compete with Europe’s best.
It’s possible to travel between virtually any two points in the country by train, with the exception of some of Italy’s more isolated mountainous regions, although incredible feats of engineering in the form of tunnels and viaducts have made inroads even into these seemingly inaccessible areas.
However, there’s a significant difference between services in the northern and southern parts of the country, the north enjoying more frequent and faster trains, and more electrified and double-track lines than the south. In an effort to reduce state subsidies, fares have been increased in the last few years, although rail travel is still good value and cheaper than in most other European countries.
Italy has direct rail connections with many other European countries, including Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland. Italy’s railways are connected with those in neighbouring countries by a number of mountain routes, linking Milan with Switzerland via the Milan-Simplon Tunnel, Turin with Fréjus in France, Venice to eastern Europe via Tarvisio, and Verona to Austria and Germany via the Brenner Pass.
Beware of trains on the weekend
Trains can be crowded, particularly at weekends and in high summer, when southern Italians working in the north return home to their families. On the faster trains, seats should usually be reserved – look for the sign ‘ Prenotazioni’ (Bookings) at stations. Bookings can be made between two months and three or four hours before a train’s departure – except for Eurostar Italia trains, for which booking can be made right up to departure time. If you have a booking, it’s wise to locate your carriage while you’re on the platform, rather than struggling up and down the corridors with your luggage.
Most locomotives and rolling stock are fairly modern and well maintained, although some of the slower, local services use old equipment. A surprisingly large number of carriages are covered in graffiti, often very artistically, but unless you’re into Italian youth culture the message is unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) impossible to interpret.
The regulations concerning the transportation of cycles on trains have recently changed and it’s now possible to take your bicycle with you on all classes of train for a fee of between around €3.50 and €7, depending on the distance. Cycles are currently transported free of charge on car-free Sundays (see above), although this may change (check at the local railway station for the current situation).
When travelling at night, take good care of your belongings (particularly your money and credit cards) and be wary of thieves. If you have a sleeping compartment, always lock the door and open it only for railway staff. Be careful about accepting food or drink from strangers, as there have been cases of thieves giving drugged food and drinks to travellers and stealing their belongings.
In the broad river plains and coastal towns, the main railway station is usually in the city centre; for example, in Rome and Florence you can walk from the station to the historic centres in just a few minutes. However, in hilly regions, such as Tuscany and Umbria, many towns and cities were built on hilltops for defensive reasons and stations are situated on the plain.
Fortunately, there are (usually) regular bus services, co-ordinated with train arrivals and departures, to whisk you to and from town centres. It’s as well to check on the situation in advance, particularly if you’re going to arrive loaded with luggage. A service is provided for transporting disabled passengers to and from main stations in Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Padua, Rome and Venice (a fee is payable).
If a station isn’t equipped with airport-style arrival ( arrivo) and departure ( partenza) boards, look for an indicator board on each platform listing (fairly well in advance) the trains arriving or departing there. Printed timetables also tell you the platform number where your train will arrive, but timetables are usually changed twice per year (around the 30th May and the 26th September), so make sure you’re consulting a current one.
Main stations, including Rome and Milan, still have a uniquely Italian institution, a ‘daytime hotel’ ( albergo diurno), open daily between 6am and midnight, where travellers can freshen up before a journey. It has no beds but provides services such as showers, hairdressers, cleaning and laundry facilities, and a place to relax and read the newspapers.
There are official porters at main stations in Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Padua, Rome and Venice, who charge a fee of around €1.75 per bag. In the same cities, passengers can also have their baggage delivered to their home or to the main station. Main stations have left luggage lockers and offices.
Types of Train in Italy
Italian railways operate a variety of trains (painted in attractive red and white designs) from slow electric and diesel commuter trains to the high-speed ETR 450, 460 and 480 Pendolino, and ETR 500 trains on major routes. Pendolino trains are so-called because they lean to the centre of their path on bends to compensate for centrifugal force, which allows them to travel up to 35 per cent faster than standard Intercity (IC) trains. Like France’s TGV trains, ETR trains were designed to compete with air services and travel at speeds up to 300kph (186mph). They’re air-conditioned and offer a hostess service, video screens, hi-fi system with earphones, card-operated telephones, meals at your seat, a dining car and minibar, a free welcome drink and newspaper (in first class) and other perks. Business lounges are provided on ETR 500 trains, in which seats can be reserved for a fee of around €10.
The types of Italian train, from the fastest to the slowest, are as follows:
- Eurostar Italia (ES) – High-speed trains that can whisk you from Rome to Milan in around four hours, although journey times vary considerably according to the number of stops made (e.g. between 1hr 36m and 3hrs 37m from Rome to Florence!) and you should check before booking. They operate on three main routes taking in Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples. ES trains are first and second class, and (free) bookings are obligatory on Fridays and Sundays, and on certain other days plus the Easter and Christmas periods (contact FS for exact dates).
- Eurocity (EC) – Fast, limited-stop international expresses operating between major cities in Italy and Europe. Sometimes first class only and bookings may be obligatory.
- Intercity (IC) – As EC above, but operating solely within Italy, with similar conditions to EC trains.
- express ( espresso) – Express (not coffee!) trains that stop in main towns along their routes. Both first and second class.
- direct ( diretto) – Slower than an espresso, making stops at most towns.
- local ( locale/regionale) – The ‘snails’ of the system, which stop absolutely everywhere, often with no station in sight! These are the trains that serve rural areas and small towns, so if you’re touring rather than on business, they can be a relaxing way to see the countryside, and the rolling stock is often quite ancient and interesting, particularly for train buffs.
Car trains ( auto al seguito) operate on a number of international routes, including Bolzano to Dusseldorf, Bologna to Calais, Milan to Cologne and Düsseldorf, Milan to Amiens, Boulogne and Paris, Milan to Calais, Rimini to Munich, Rimini to Paris, Rome to Calais, Venice to Vienna and Verona to Hanover.
Long-distance and international night trains often have sleeping accommodation in the form of first- and second-class cabins (one to three berths), and couchettes or ‘sleeperettes’ (reclining seats – first class only). It’s recommended to avoid couchettes in the school holiday season (roughly June to September) if you wish to sleep!
There are diagrams in stations showing the layout of carriages for the different types1 of train, i.e. the position of first- and second-class carriages, buffet/restaurant cars and sleeping cars, etc.. Most long-distance trains have a trolley service for drinks and snacks, and some fast trains have a restaurant car or buffet, although these are rare; when on a long journey, it’s wise to follow the Italians’ example and take your own snacks and packed lunch/dinner.
To further complicate matters, Ferrovie dello Stato operates many categories of train – some have only first class carriages, some just second class; on some you must pay a supplement ( supplemento – though these are to be phased out); for others you must book a seat – and it’s important to check which type you’re travelling on. If you board a first-class-only train with a second-class ticket the ticket inspector may just charge you the difference, or you may need to pay a fine.
Train fares in Italy
Rail fares are good value compared with those of most other European countries, although ticket ( biglietto) prices are rising along with the investment in improved services and the reduction in state subsidies. There are, however, a wide range of concessionary fares, season tickets and special offers, many of which are listed below. All children under four automatically travel free (but shouldn’t occupy a seat) and those aged from 4 to 12 travel for half fare. First-class tickets cost almost double the price of a second-class ticket.
Fares on local trains on journeys of up to 100km (62mi) are calculated on the distance travelled. For all other trains, including Eurostar, Eurocity, Intercity and Intercity Night trains, fares are set by FS based on ‘market values’. However, if you wish to upgrade to a train in a superior category or from second to first class, you must pay a ‘change of service’ fee, or, in the case of a downgrade, you can claim a refund. If a ticket is unused (through no fault of FS), a refund will be made within two months of the date of issue and is subject to a fee of 20 per cent of the fare or a minimum of €5.
If an Intercity train arrives over 30 minutes late you receive a ‘bonus’ equal to 30 per cent of the fare and booking charge. For Eurostar trains the bonus is increased to 50 per cent. Take note of the train’s number, point of departure/arrival and its scheduled and actual arrival times, and complete a bonus request ( richiesta di bonus) form available at stations. You can do this at any FS station up to 15 days after the journey, and aren’t required to make a claim on arrival at your destination. Your bonus is sent by post in the form of a discount coupon that you can use to buy future train tickets.
Concessions & Discounts
Ferrovie dello Stato offers a range of reduced and concessionary fares, which, if you’re planning to do a lot of travelling, are worth looking into. These include the following (although they change frequently):
- season card ( tessera d’abbonamento) – a monthly season ticket for IC or ES trains that provides unlimited return journeys on the same route up to 1,000km (620mi). You can order and pay online at www.abbonamenti.fs-on-line.it, although you must order the ticket at least four working days (weekdays) prior to the starting date and pay by credit card (Visa or MasterCard). The ticket is posted to you.
- families ( famiglie) – Children under four travel free and children under 12 accompanied by two paying adults travel free. The offer is valid for first- and second-class travel on all domestic journeys, including Eurostar Italia, EC and IC trains.
- group ticket ( biglietto di gruppo) – Groups of at least six people receive a discount of 20 per cent (first and second class) or 10 per cent on Eurostar Italia and couchettes; you must book, at a cost of €1.50. Groups of over 50 people receive larger discounts; details (which vary) are available at main stations. Certain periods are excluded, as shown above for families.
- Cartaviaggio cards – Cartaviaggio, Cartaviaggio Smart, Cartaviaggio Relax and Cartaviaggio Executive cards offer various benefits and discounts, geared towards different types of traveller (e.g. regular/irregular commuter at peak/off-peak times). The first three cards are free, the fourth costs €89 per year. For further details and to keep abreast of changes, see the website www.trenitalia.com/it/cartaviaggio.
If you find all the different tickets and discounts bewildering, it’s hardly surprising. With such an abundance of season and special tickets available, the only thing you can be sure of is that unless you’re travelling free, you’re probably paying too much. The solution may be simply to tell a ticket office clerk where you want to go, when and how often you want to travel, and whether first or second class. However, you may not be able to rely on him to provide you with the cheapest ticket available, as he may be just as confused as you are!
Buying train tickets in Italy
You need to buy a single/one-way ticket ( solo andata) or return/round trip ( andata e ritorno) ticket before commencing your journey. Tickets can be purchased at ticket offices at most railway stations, although it’s recommended to buy your ticket in advance at a travel agency, which saves you (often a lot of) time queuing. If you plan to buy a ticket at a main station, you should allow plenty of time (at least 30 minutes). There’s usually a dedicated ticket window for Eurostar tickets.
It’s possible to avoid queuing by paying on a train, but you must usually pay a surcharge; surcharges aren’t payable by passengers who board at a station without a ticket office or with non-operational ticket offices. If you need to board a train without a ticket, you should seek out the ticket inspector and buy a ticket as soon as possible.
Many stations are equipped with ticket machines on which instructions can be displayed in English. They’re similar in operation to the timetable on the FS website (www.trenitalia.com), except that you can pay for a ticket using a credit card or by inserting banknotes into the machine and receive it immediately. In the cities of Bologna, Florence, Milan, Naples, Padua, Rome and Venice, you can telephone the Welcome Centre and arrange for tickets to be delivered to your home. Most tickets are valid for two months and passengers can make unlimited stops within the period of validity.
Before boarding a train you must validate your ticket by inserting it in a small yellow validation ( convalida) machine ( macchine obliteratici), where it’s punched to indicate that it has been used. If there’s no machine, you should write the date and time by hand on the back of the ticket and find the ticket inspector after you’ve boarded a train; otherwise you can be fined for travelling without a ticket. Once punched, a ticket is valid for six hours on journeys of up to 200km (124mi) and 24 hours for journeys over 200km.
Information about rail services is available from an FS central line (06-44101), although it can be difficult to get through and you need to speak Italian. Timetables can also be displayed on a television via the Televideo service and other ‘teletext’ services. If you have access to the internet, FS has an excellent website (www.ferroviedellostato.it) that includes the following information, most of which can be displayed in English (plus Italian, French, German and Spanish):
- a do-it-yourself timetable. This is in English but you must enter the town or city names in Italian, e.g. Firenze not Florence, Venezia not Venice. You enter your departure station, arrival station, date of journey and earliest starting time, and all scheduled trains are displayed for that day (for long journeys it may also include trains departing on the following day), including journey times, connecting stations, on-board facilities, whether booking is necessary and wheelchair access.
- information about the main Italian railway stations, such as the facilities available (restaurant, news kiosk, change office, etc.), telephone numbers, and opening hours for information and reservation services;
- a list of FS agencies (the best place to buy tickets) for all major towns in Italy;
- offers such as reductions, monthly tickets and excursion tickets (many of which are listed above under Concessions & Discounts). Bear in mind, however, that these change frequently and the website may not show the latest information, so it’s recommended to check with an FS agent or main railway station information office.
- detailed information about Eurostar services;
- telephone numbers for tourist hotels and car hire companies.
This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.