Bill Porter’s Trip to Italy

Guest Post by William Porter, High Speed Rail Alliance Board Member

I joined the Alliance not only because I like to ride trains, but also because I believe high-speed rail travel can contribute to the solution of a myriad of societal issues facing our country.

While I had traveled across the country on Amtrak (and I’m old enough to have traveled on the 20th Century Limited, the Wabash Cannonball, the Denver Zephyr, and many other pre-Amtrak trains), I had never been on a true high-speed train. That all changed this past fall when my wife and I took a much-delayed trip to Italy. Naturally while in Italy we took the train to travel between Rome and Florence, and then Florence to Venice.

A high-speed train is boarding passengers in Rome.

Bill’s train is boarding passengers in Rome.

We certainly enjoyed our time in Rome, but we were eagerly anticipating our first high-speed rail trip to Florence—well, I was anyway! Our arrival at Rome’s Stazione di Partenza was about one hour prior to departure. It was mid-day on a Monday, and the station was teeming with people. It reminded me of a terminal at O’Hare on Thanksgiving weekend. We walked right in, and by scanning our ticket we were able to gain access to the platforms without any delay. We could have arrived 10 minutes before departure and not had an issue. No baggage check line, no TSA security check points.

That is not to say there was no security, however. Armed trios of Italian police or soldiers in full military garb with assault rifles at the ready circulated in the crowd and randomly checked tickets and passports. Some groups were accompanied by what I assumed were bomb- or drug-sniffing dogs. We felt very secure.

The level of train activity was astounding. Trains were arriving or departing almost constantly. No sooner would a train depart and another one would pull in. Digital display boards kept us informed where our train was. Soon it was time for train 9310, a Trenitalia Frecciarossa, to board. The front of the train was a bit worse for wear with some cracked and peeling paint, and countless bug splatters, but the rest of the train was clean, showing signs of a recent washing. The windows were spotless. We settled into our business-class seat about 10 minutes before departure. There were ample luggage racks at the end of the car so we did not have to lift our heavy bags onto the overhead racks. The interior was clean, our facing seats with table were comfortable. We could plug in our phones and get some free electrons courtesy of the railroad.

Departure was on the dot and acceleration was amazingly quick as compared to my diesel-powered prior knowledge. Our car was full with a mix of tourists like ourselves, business travelers who spent the entire trip on their laptops, and families who were traveling together. Intermediate station stops were very quick, and there was heavy local traffic with seat turnover a constant. The conductor quickly scanned our tickets, the station announcements were in Italian and English. We didn’t use the café car, but many people in our car did. There was at-seat cart service with a box lunch containing a small sandwich, desert bar, fruit juice, and a bottle of water. The attendants came back before we arrived in Florence and removed any trash.  The bathrooms were immaculate. There were roving attendants who came through the car several times during the trip to check the condition of the bathrooms.

And then there was the speed. It was deceiving at first because we didn’t have a frame of reference as the countryside sped by. Soon however, we were parallel to an Autostrade (comparable to an American Interstate Highway). We flew by all the trucks and cars as if they were standing still. It was exhilarating. The ride was very smooth. There was no jerking back and forth or up and down. We just did mile after mile in a completely smooth fashion. There were no grade crossings to slow for and when we (frequently) passed a train going in the opposite direction, it was just a blur. Arrival in Florence was right on time and, judging by the attitude of fellow passengers, on-time arrival is the norm.

Our trip from Florence to Venice mirrored our Rome trip. Service, on time departure and arrival, and smooth track was repeated. The only difference was that our first hour or so of the trip was in a tunnel.

The only negative part of our trips on Trenitalia was the preponderance of graffiti everywhere. Any non-operating surface such as bridge abutments, retaining walls, signal boxes, and even some parked trainsets were tagged with graffiti. There seemed to be no effort to remove any of it.

All in all, however, travel on an Italian high-speed train was a marvelous experience, not because it was special, but because it was so normal! The ride was smooth, the service was excellent, frequency a given, and punctuality could be relied upon every trip.  Seeing how seamlessly high-speed train travel had become part of the fabric of life in the communities it served, and seeing how it allowed people the opportunity to travel inexpensively, conveniently, in an environmentally sustainable manner was eye-opening. That very normalcy made me re-commit to the High Speed Rail Alliance, and our work to bring high-speed rail service to the United States. It’s way past time to make it happen.

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