From Mussolini to Eurostar
The long history of Italian high-speed rail is one of missed chances and failed promises. Italian railways weren't just the rarely recognised fourth pioneer (alongside Japan, France and Germany), but could have been the first. In ill times, though.
On 28 October 1922, at the end of the fascist march on Rome, Benito Mussolini arrived by train – late. He told the station boss that 'from now on, trains run on time'. This then became a centre-piece of his propaganda, and even today, many believe that it was true – though in truth Mussolini failed:
"All authoritarian political systems offer 'leadership,' and those who support them argue that they are at least efficient.... The myth of fascist efficiency is fossilized in the endlessly repeated assurance that Mussolini 'made the trains run on time.' ...[His regime] brought disaster... and the trains did not run on time! The author was employed as a courier by the Franco-Belgique Tours Company in the summer of 1930, the height of Mussolini's heyday, when a fascist guard rode on every train, and is willing to make an affidavit to the effect that most Italian trains on which he travelled were not on schedule—or near it. There must be thousands who can support this attestation. It's a trifle, but it's worth nailing down."
–Bergen Evans (1954), The Spoor of Spooks and other Nonsense, Alfred A. Knopf, New York; Library of Congress catalog card number 53-9461.
As pointed out in a snopes article, simple post-WWI reconstruction – which started prior to the fascist takeover – must have had a large part in relative improvements, too. But, it wasn't just reconstruction, there was also the resurrection of some pre-WWI projects to fit Mussolini's grandiosity: the direttissima lines.
Presaging what Japan did three decades later, Italy wanted to duplicate the network connecting main cities, with new, much straighter lines paralleling the existing old railways. Italy being mountainous, this was a pharaonic enterprise with long tunnels. The first direttissima connected Rome and Naples from 1927. A second, connecting Bologna and Florence, followed in 1934.
Above: 4 December 1929, holing-through celebration held in the station in the middle of the 18,507 m Appennino tunnel, the centrepiece of the Bologna–Florence direttissima. At the time, it was the second longest in the world. Photo from Bologna Digital Library
Below: straight line across the trench and tunnel of Canneto, North of Prato. Photo from Bologna Digital Library
However, while the routing of the new lines would have permitted speeds up to 200 km/h, and trains aimed for that speed were built (some diesel railcars and ETR 200), even 160 km/h was rarely reached due to poor quality (130 km/h was typical). And line construction came to a standstill with WWII preparations...
Pharaonic (and sluggish) railway construction resumed in the chronically corrupt Italian Republic. The third direttissima, from Rome to Florence, was Europe's first true high-speed line in 1977 – ahead of the LGV Paris–Lyon in France.
Inside the cab of FS ETR 450 006, running at 255 km/h (see speed indicator in the middle) near Capena on the Florence–Rome Direttissima in Spring 1990. Photo by Jacopo Fioravanti from Railfaneurope.net
However, ambition and reality were again far apart.
- in 1977, only half of the line was ready – it took 15 more years to finish it to Florence.
- New high-speed trains were also a decade late: old trains from the fifties (ETR 250 "Arlecchino" and ETR 300 "Settebello", see Hump-Nosed Trains) were used at 180 km/h until the arrival of the 250 km/h ETR 450 "Pendolino" tilting trains (though they were still ahead of Germany's ICE by starting in 1987).
- When as a next step, the 300 km/h ETR 500 trains followed, FS was finally forced to recognise that Italy's 3 kV DC electrification system is not really suited for high power uptake at high speed. (In fact, even 250 km/h was problematic: except when late, they go at 220 km/h.)
The only field where ambition had results: after also incorporating technology from Britain's failed ATP, FIAT Ferroviaria of Italy (later sold to TGV maker Alstom...) became the only manufacturer in Europe that truly mastered active tilting technology, resulting in export successes from Britain to Slovenia, from Portugal to Finland – though, all the importers had their troubles running it properly.
My own photo shows ČD 680 005 (receding) as SuperCity 505 to Ostrava, clearly beding into the curve near Brandýs nad Orlicí in the Czech Republic
To boot, after the new trains arrived, FS found themselves upstaged in the brand name: having failed to register "Eurostar" internationally, the London–Paris/Brussels high-speed trains across Channel Tunnel could use the same name, too, and became much more famous with it.
In the nineties, with support from both centre-left and centre-right, the high-speed push began in earnest. Although there was big mess and corruption and delays again, those delays were in years rather than decades for a rather large part of the planned network: all the way from Turin to Naples.
This time, the aim was state-of-the-art: 300 km/h lines electrified at 25 kV, 50 Hz AC; newer Pendolinos (from the 2nd generation: ETR 470 and ETR 485, brand-new third generation: ETR 600) and true high-speed sets (ETR 500 P) built for dual-system (DC/AC) service.
The first third-generation Pendolino, an ETR 600, on a test run on the Florence–Rome high-speed line near Incisa in Val d'Aosta, on a cold and foggy winter morning two years ago. Photo by Paolo Carnetti from RailPictures.Net
However, high-tech led to more trouble: Italy wanted to pioneer the new all-European wireless train control and signalling system, ERTMS Level 2 – which, as I wrote in several high-speed rail diaries before, was in mighty trouble due to the unreliability of wireless technology for railway purposes.
Two of the new lines opened about two years ago: most of LAV Roma–Napoli (yes, the third line to connect Rome and Naples) and, just in time for the Winter Olympics, LAV Torino–Novara (I reported). A short Naples–Salerno line was opened
in June on 15 April, with full service from 16 June .
Two short sections of LAV Milano–Bologna, at its two ends, were opened for mixed traffic earlier, too. The rest: [13 December]. Here is a map in two parts of the 182 km long new line:
Red is the new line, black is other rail lines, grey is roads (what looks like a shade of the high-speed line is the A1 highway). Map from RFI
You'll notice a speciality of Italian high-speed lines: they are like highways. It is not unheard of to build high-speed lines bypassing cities but with connections to a conventional line into the bypassed city (see for example on Madrid–Barcelona in Spain here, or LGV Nord in France). But in Italy, conventional expresses to all medium-sized cities are meant to co-use the high-speed lines – resulting in many connecting branches, which add a lot to the costs. (The 8 interconnections for the LAV Milano–Bologna add up to 27.5 km.)
Though the new line runs along a highway on the flat Po Basin, it does have significant superstructures: a number of cut-and-cover tunnels (altogether 3.5 km), bridges and elevated sections (altogether 32 km).
Just before its western end, Viadotto Modena (the longest elevated section at 7,116 m) crosses the A22 next to the Campogalliano exit. Photo from Il Messaggero
Star architect Santiago Calatrava from Valencia/Spain also left his mark: he got to design the new station Mediopadana next to Reggio Emilia, and next to it, a group of three oversized overpasses with his signature twisted arch–cable-stay combinations.
When you fix cable-stays to an arch-pylon: the North Bridge in Calatrava's triplet at Reggio Emilia spans a roundabout. In the background, the (relatively) more conventional Central Bridge, with its 221 m span over both the Milan–Bologna high-speed line and the A1 highway.
Photo by ecatoncheires from Flickr – check out the linked set of nine amazing night photos!
Meanwhile, after yet another government change, Italy's high-speed trains suffered yet another re-branding, and with that a new livery. The new Eurostar Italia names are:
- Frecciarossa (Red Arrow): trains for top speeds of 300–350 km/h;
- Frecciargento (Silver Arrow): trains for 250–285 km/h;
- Frecciabianca (White Arrow): trains for 220–230 km/h.
An ETR 500 P in new Frecciarossa livery on a test run on the new Milan–Bologna high-speed line at Anzola dell'Emilia (with Lavino Interconnection in the background and the shadow of the parallel conventional line in the foreground) on 10 October 2008. Photo by Beppe from RailPictures.Net
On schedule from today, trains run Milan to Bologna (with city sections, altogether 214.7 km) in 1h05m, cutting 37 minutes. Milan–Rome non-stop trains (19 out of a daily 51 high-speed runs) will cover the distance in 3h30m (29 minutes less than the stopping ones). Also see prices.
In December 2009, the three gaps that remain between Turin and Naples will be closed: the on-time Novara–Milan section, the final section into Naples (delayed by archeology), and the altogether three years delayed Bologna–Florence section. The latter is in practice a series of tunnels (featured in my "boring" Tunnels diary), and will cut another half hour in the planned schedule.
Did I say gaps closed? Well, not completely. The actual lines end at the outskirts of major cities, but all cities receive new through tracks for the arriving high-speed trains with separate routing – and all of these suffered delays. The key Bologna node is slated for opening in 2011, the Florence one even in 2014.
Further plans are trudging along at glacial speed.
There is the Lyon–Turin line, which will connect to the French TGV network across the giant Mount d'Ambin Base Tunnel (53.1 km) – maybe by 2023.
A second big corridor is to connect Milan and Trieste, possibly continued to Ljubljana in Slovenia. Two shorter lower-speed sections that will form part of this corridor were opened in 2007 (see European HSR expansion in 2007), the rest is haggled over. Most controversy was generated around the project for a base tunnel from Genua to the Po Basin in the north ("Terzo Valico"), with inhabitants fearing pollution from the construction.
Longer-term plans include a Bologna–Verona connection, a branch from Naples to the Adriatic coast, and a line all the way down to the planned Messina Bridge, and on to Palermo via Catania across Sicily. However, even if these become reality, not all of it may turn out true high-speed.
I close with a different future: the brave new privatised open-access one.
NTV, founded by Luca di Montezemolo of Ferrari, is a private high-speed train operator wannabe, which became launch customer for Alstom's TGV successor AGV (see here and here) with a €650 million order for 25 trains, which are to run under the (internet vote selected) uninspired product name ".ITALO" from 2011.
On the photo from NTV, co-owner and CEO Giuseppe Sciarrone with a model of the NTV AGV at a press conference on 15 July
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