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Monday Train Blogging: Alta Velocità

by DoDo Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 04:33:53 PM EST

Alex is off-line, I'll do another unplanned theme – one supplementing the earlier Highest Speed diary.

The occasion: after pilot service started 19 December on the Rome–Naples line, now Friday this week, service will also start on the Turin–Novara line, to serve the Winter Olympics. (During tests last autumn, the Italian speed record was broken successively on both lines – 348, then 350.8 km/h.)

A first sub-series ETR500 (300 km/h high-speed train) and a series ETR460 (second-generation Pendolino tilting train) at a presentation. Photo by Luka Rutar from RailFanEurope

When most people think of high-speed trains, they think of Japan's Shinkansen, France's TGV, and maybe Germany's ICE. But Italy has its own system, in fact we could say that Italy pioneered the modern concept of high-speed. Yet, lack of recognition is not without reason.

It began in dark times, hijacked at the beginning for the service of fascist propaganda: the construction of Direttìssima lines, designed for express traffic with wide curves and long tunnels, paralleling older lines. A second Rome–Naples line was opened 1927, and the mountains between Bologna and Florence were cut through seven years later. But trains ran late despite Mussolini's vows, and tracks and trains weren't up to fully exploit these advantages even decades after WWII.

An ETR220, slightly rebuilt version of a nineteen-thirties 'high-speed' train ETR200 (intended for 200 km/h, but went rarely above 160 km/h in practise). Photo in Milano Centrale in 1990 by Jacopo Fioravanti from RailFanEurope

Still, Italy beat France in building the first modern (built for 250 km/h or more) high-speed line in Europe (the Direttìssima from Rome to Florence). Only, as typical in that period of limitless corruption and mismanagement, the line was built in stages – the first opened 1978, the last only 1992. And the first trains suited for the permissible top speed (the famous Pendolino tilting trains) weren't ready until the  nineties1.

A series ETR450 (first-generation) Pendolino tilting train on an upgraded section near Narni. Photo by Michele Benda from RailFanEurope

From the middle of the nineties, construction of most sections of the "Big T" (from Naples up north to Milan, and east–west from Turin to Venice) has begun2, lines designed for 300 or even 350 km/h – and the ETR500 trains suited for these speeds are already in (lower-speed) service. The two mentioned at the beginning are the first openings.

A second sub-series (improved, two-system) ETR500 high-speed train on a Rome–Naples test run last November. Photo from TAV's works album

But things didn't go smoothly under Prodi and Berlusconi either: the last 50 km of the new (third) Rome–Naples line is still in construction after archaeology- and misplanning-related delays, the opened section was also delayed due to notorious signalling problems, which may also be the reason for a rather modest pilot traffic (just two train pairs with a mere 10 minutes cut off)...

Track-laying near Novara in November 2004, in the region's characteristic heavy autumn mist, which Umberto Eco liked to incorporate into his novels. Photo by Mattia C. from RailFanEurope

  1. Part of the problem was the Italian electrification system: it is a DC system, which allows a lower maximum current and thus less maximum power. Later lines are now built with an AC power system, and new trains are suited for both systems.
  2. For maps and details, check out the homepage of the authority created in the nineties to direct and coordinate construction, TAV (link goes to English site).

Previous Monday Train Bloggings:

  1. (Premiere/ modern Austrian trains & locos)
  2. Adventure
  3. Fast Steam
  4. Heavy Haul
  5. Forgotten Colorado
  6. The Hardest Job
  7. Blowback
  8. Highest Speed
  9. New England Autumn
  10. Trainwreck
  11. Bigger Than Big Boy
  12. Tunnels
  13. Failed Designs
  14. Demarcations
  15. Crazed Designs
  16. Trains In The Arts
  17. Railway Cathedrals
  18. Design Dictators
  19. Slippery Slope

I didn't know about our "record breaking" attitude, even though I rated our system as much better than the UK one... but that's not too difficult to beat ;)

I think you should also add a few things though:

  1. the high-speed trains are built by FIAT-owned companies, and they are sold through the entire Europe; I was very surprised when UK Virgin Trains unveiled their  "top of the range" train with much fanfare a couple of years ago, and it was... a simple Pendolino! I also traveled on "made in Italy" trains through Sweden and Denmark's common routes, but I don't know of any train used for Italy's main traffic that is not built in the peninsula.
  2. the current generation of high-speed tracks has been built with the usual amount of corruption and scandals, that I won't report here only for decency.
by toyg (g.lacava@gmail.com) on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 08:25:41 AM EST
Regarding the records, I note that there is a general requirement in Europe to have test runs for both trains and lines at 10% above the envisioned maximum speed. For the current lines, that means initially a test speed of 330 km/h, which would already have been an Italian record. I read in obscure sources that they want to raise the ETR500's allowed speed to 320 or even 350 km/h - for the former, 352 km/h would be required.

1) Yes, the Pendolino is a big export success, because even though others built active-tilting trains too, none matched the Italian versions' reliability. However, Fiat Ferroviaria was bought up by French-British Alstom in 2006, only AnsaldoBreda (maker of ETR500) remains Italian. Here is a list from memory of Pendolino derivates:

  • Finland: series Sm3
  • Czech Republic: series 680
  • Germany: series 610 (only tilting technology not entire train, nor diesel drive)
  • Great Britain: series 390
  • Switzerland: series ETR470, ETR490 (owned by joint company Cisalpino, latter only devivered next year)
  • Portugal: series 4000
  • Spain: series 443 (only one, copy of Italian prototype!), 490, S-104 (non-tilting), S-120 (only part of technology, non-tilting, but gauge-changing with CAF technology)

(Note though, neither Denmark's rubber-nosed trainsets, nor Sweden's X2000 were made with Pendolino technology, tough both tilt.)

2) No, just report it! I don't hear much about these, I only notice rising costs and delays, it is always worth to know if those were awoidable. (And if this involves Berlusconi-bashing, the more the better! ;-))

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 10:12:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Fiat Ferroviaria was bought up by French-British Alstom in 2006


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 10:13:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I know I should not be surprised (the italian heavy-industry sector has been in disarray for decades, like in the rest of Europe), but still...
by toyg (g.lacava@gmail.com) on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 07:13:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is the Talgo pendular one of the Spanish train models you list?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 10:26:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No. The Talgo Pendular is an unmotorised (locomotive-pulled) trainset, but only with passive tilting (like the Danish rubber-nosed trains too).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 10:36:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...and it is Spanish technology.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 10:36:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Does that imply, by contrast, that the Pendolino has motorized coaches?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 10:47:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes. They are electric multiple units with rather complicated distributed traction (like, one axle of two in each bogie driven), and keeping the pantograph straight while the carbody tilts is no small feat either.

I focused on the question of being driven because unmotorised cars and trainsets don't have such nice short code-names, but the more important difference is in the tilting systems. The Talgo has no bogies but single wheels between the cars, which are mounted on the wheels so that they can swing like a pendulum (moved by inertial forces, hence "passive") - but only a maximum 3°. But the Pendolino has bogies, and a dual frame, and relative motion is forced by actuators between the frames (hence "active"), to a maximum of 8-10°.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 02:49:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can only talk about what I know true, because it happened while I was in Italy; I might miss details or news that came later on.

The "Alta Velocita'" project was started long before Berlusconi came to power; officially, it was the only way to keep the italian railway links with Europe "up to speed", because France and Germany had big plans already underway (those lucky, mainly flat countries can afford to upgrade their rail system with relative ease).

From the start, it was clear that this project was going to be full of pork for everyone involved... they included all sort of long-dues and/or unnecessary upgrades, like a partial revamp for the central station in Bologna (a previous attempt at replacing this crucial node with an office building for speculative reasons had been shot down by citizen worried about losing a symbol of the fascist terrorist actions in the early 80s - google for "Bologna 2 august 1980") and costs started to grow; and it was still in the planning stage! Expensive surveys had to be undertaken and the impact on environment was evaluated thoroughly; this was under the previous, leftist government, and the ruling party knew that, to keep their activists happy, they had to do things properly and foresee all the possible "green" attacks.
Then the contracts were signed, and at the same time, the government changed; to clear his stance on conflicts of interest, Berlusconi appointed as "Minister for Infrastructure" an engineer, Claudio Lunardi, whose company was deeply involved with the Alta Velocita' project. (that's like appointing an oilman to a task-force for energy! oh, wait...)

Costs kept going up and up, of course; to be fair to Lunardi, his company was perfectly on schedule. For example, while excavating the Appenini mountains between Tuscany and Emilia, they had to pick up the slack from companies at the other end of the tunnels. They planned to complete the project while Silvio was still in government, what a triumph that would have been! But then something happened, and one of the building company failed. They simply left the sites as they were and went home. I believe it took 6 months to sort out the mess and find a replacement. And costs, of course, went up again. But Lunardi had total confidence from Berlusconi, so...

Then, we have the fresh problems in Piedmont. As it's mentioned  in the original post, Alta Velocita' was planned to help the Turin bid for the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, they were a bit behind in that area, and started to excavate certain traits only last autumn. The project was now almost a decade-old, all the  plans had been checked and double-checked and triple-checked by all the previous governments and bureaucrats, everyone knew that it was going to start any minute now... and people rioted. Why?
It probably was a politically motivated move form local councils that felt left out of the pork barrel, helped by external "green" extremists that love a good fight only when it's totally useless. They even assaulted the olympic torch-bearer, and the torch was then extinsguished for safety reasons, to the shame of an otherwise very efficient organisation.  In the end, I believe (as I wasn't there anymore, I can't be sure on this) the councils were more or less bought off by the Piedmont regional assembly, for which the Olympics are extremely important, and the work is being carried out as planned.

by toyg (g.lacava@gmail.com) on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 06:59:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I am relieved to hear that the messy part was B.'s - but also that it wasn't as bad as, say, some curiously nonsensical projects when a railway was upgraded in a "pharaonic" way, say disappearing into  expensive tunnels not justifyed by traffic levels. However, two critical notes.

One is on rising costs. What newspapers (and politicians) decrying rising costs often fail to mention is that costs rise due to inflation - i.e., the rise in 2000 prices may be much less than that in actual prices. But f.e. opponents of public transport will always emphasize the latter.

Another is the "green extremists". I am both a pro-rail (and a railroader) and green, and sometimes find myself in a position where I want to defend either side against the other... So here, I agree that there are completely unreasonable environmentalist protesters, but there is also often the issue of lack of local consultations (the government and bureaucrats are far away and think in macroeconomic terms - their triple-checking is not enough), or consultations without taking any input into account as plan modifications. In Switzerland or Spain, and to a lesser degree Germany, local consultations are well-organised and standardised in the process, and there is less of this trouble. From the little I heard of the long history of the Terzo Valico project, TAV's local consultation seems rather messy and unsatisfactory.

Finally, a furthering question: are you talking about protests against the Torino-Novara line specifically, or is this connected to the Val di Susa protests against the new French-Italian line with the giant base tunnel?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 07:27:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it was all about the Torino-Novara, Val di Susa was a few years ago...?
I understand your concern, but green activists in Italy really have a bad name. Their political emanations are full of ex-"socialists" (as you probably know, that word in italy really means "sycophant follower of disgraceful and corrupt Bettino Craxi, great friend of Silvio Berlusconi and wrecker of public finances") refugees, and their members on the ground have a soft spot for bad taste and useless actions (like camping out La Scala every year to throw something at rich people in fur). Attacking the olympic torch was useless and disgraceful for the country, and it was a huge mistake. My outrage is even greater when I think that this happened only BECAUSE of the Olympics, that is, they were only looking for attention, they don't really care about the issue (as messy as it can be). Realistically speaking, I don't see why this problem was so big in those areas; other regions (Tuscany, Emilia, etc) had similar issues but solved them with a bit of attention (and probably a fair amount of grease and pork as usual) and relatively quickly. Also, this project is not new, it's been on paper for a decade, why all the protests now? It does look suspicious to me...
by toyg (g.lacava@gmail.com) on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 09:13:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Val di Susa protests are on-going. I hear about them every week, that's why I asked. As for projects on paper, that is the problem: until it is on paper, it is not definite, it can be changed, which in some cases is even used as argument to not conduct local consultation. (I could write about the example of a long-planned NATO radar station in a natural reserve stopped by protesters in Southern Hungary.)

The ex-Craxi-ist angle is indeed news to me - sad, sad thing; though still not as bad as what happened here in Hungary when a bunch of neo-nazi youth took over the first Green Party in a coup, and then copyrighted the name(!). Also agreed about the olympic torch (warning about my commenting style: I often to fail to mention when I agree with something I do not respond to...). However, pelting rich people in fur at La Scala - I'd like to do that :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 09:56:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is a transrapid a train?
by PeWi on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 09:27:31 AM EST
Yes, a maglev train, why?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 10:13:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just wanted to tease you - since you had not (I think) mentioned it in the high speed entries - and it is obviously much faster than he trains you had mentioned.
I am never good at jokes and particularly not after a long sea crossing...
by PeWi on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 11:01:22 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I did mention it, in the comments of the "Highest Speed" and the diary text of the "Trainwreck" diary, but negatively :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 02:32:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Three cheers to Italian industrial designers. Pininfarina designed ETR500, and Giaugiro ETR460. They build beautiful airplanes too (e.g., Piaggio's Avanti).  We can't even copy them...

I will become a patissier, God willing.
by tuasfait on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 11:34:23 AM EST
Same goes for cars and of course fashion :-) but thats another topic.
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 12:36:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree for cars, not fashion, non mais!

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet
by Melanchthon on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 03:28:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I always understood as this page tends to confirm that the Pendolino tilting technology was sold to Italy by British Rail after the APT project to privide a high speed service on the West Coast route.

The purpose of tilting is to enable high speed running on existing railway routes with only minor modifications to reduce the worst curces. Dedicated HST lines do not require such mechanisms as the routes avoid the tight curves. As you can see from the picture on the linked page, the acitve system had some failures in its test runs and some passengers found it unnerving. I suspect this was becuase the tilting kicked in too early or not at all.

The intital running of the Pendolino trains on the Virgin Trains service to Scotland initially disabled the mechanism and ran at lower speeds while the upgrades to the line were completed.

by Londonbear on Mon Feb 6th, 2006 at 08:53:35 PM EST
The Italian Pendolino prototype (ETR401) was built 1975, with technology tests even before, so I think we have a case of over-emphasized national role. (A similar example: the Talgo technology Migeru referred to was invented and first tested by a Spaniard, but the first complete trainset was built in license in the USA, and the first Spanish trainset in service was manufactured in the USA - but a New Republic article a few years ago left out the first half of the story, and argued that the rest of the world using ingenious US technology neglected at home.)

...after following a link on that page, I see the author acknowledges this in the more detailed page on Pendolinos. (It even details that tests were conducted on the first, pre-war Rome-Naples high-speed line I mentioned.) He puts the not at all insignificant ATP input thus:

After Britain abandoned the tilting Advanced Passenger Train, the tilting technology was sold to Italy, which was further developed along with existing Italian tilting technology and the result was a few years later in 1987 the emergence of the Pendolini ETR 450, a high speed tilting train. This simplified things, because, while the ETR-401 required a gyroscope and an accelerometer for each bogie, the ETR-450 had them only at the end-cars and the rest of the tilting mechanism was electronically activated on a master-slave basis.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 03:48:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...oh, and f*ck Thatcher.

A further, general point about tilting trains: why are there none in France?

The crux of the matter is that tilting trains go faster in curves is not because they cause less wear on rails. They don't. It is only because of passenger confort, because of unconfortable side accelerations. However, in France, the track-building norm was to raise the outer rail in curves much higher than in the rest of Europe, and permissible side accelerations felt by passengers were also greater. Thus, French trains already go at the higher speeds in curves.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Tue Feb 7th, 2006 at 03:54:10 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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