Riding today’s Italian fast trains

While today’s Italian trains are fast, modern, convenient, generally on time, and plenty comfortable, they don’t move at French TGV speeds.

But then again, they don’t have to be that fast because of short distances between major Italian cities.  Milan to Venice is about 175 miles; Venice to Florence is under 200 miles; Florence to Rome is also less than 200  miles; and Rome to Milan is just 375 miles.  I recently was aboard modern Italian fast trains between each of those city-pairs and was impressed and satisfied with the times.  Top speeds often exceeded 100 MPH by a long shot, but it’s the average speed that really matters.  In most cases, even with stops, the average speed hovered around the century mark.

My family of four traveled together on this trip, and our journey within Italy began and ended in Milan.  I’d found relatively cheap fares to and from Milan Malpensa because American Airlines was competing with Emirates’s fare to MXP, and we grabbed the AA fares because it was a lot less expensive than flying into Rome, Venice, Florence, or even to Pisa.

Malpensa, however, is a long distance from the center of Milan.  In fact it’s 45-60 minutes by road or rail.  We opted for the rail connection to Milano Centrale since we were continuing by train to Venice from there.  After clearing Customs and Immigration we easily found the Malpensa Express train station platforms under the airport and bought a “Family Pass” to get into the city for €25 (about $34) which covered the four of us.  Individual tickets on the Malpensa Express are €10 (about $13.50).

The “Malpensa Express” is anything but.  We stopped at eight or nine stations over the 55 minutes it took us to reach the Milano Centrale station, hardly an “express” service.  When I mentioned this to a friend who is more familiar with Malpensa than I am, he assured me the train service was far cheaper than a taxi, if perhaps not as fast.

On the return trip from central Milan to the Malpensa airport we once again used the Malpensa Express train, but the ubiquitous automated ticket machines to be found in every Italian rail station called “Fast Tickets” didn’t have the option to buy a Family Pass, so we paid full individual fares, a total of €35, to get back to the airport.  I inquired with a number of Trenitalia (Italian Rail) personnel as to why the Family Pass option was absent from the machines, but no one had a clue.

At any rate the Malpensa Express was a pleasant, clean, and comfortable option for getting between the airport and the city.

Before going further, here are the prices we paid for our tickets for the intercity fast trains, all of which we purchased through the Trenitalia (Italian Railways) online portal well in advance of our trip:

Milan to Venice: €36 total (€9 euros per ticket, or about $12 each) – this was the cheapest advance purchase ticket available (“Super Economy”), and we traveled in the lowest class available called “Standard Class” or 2nd Class, which is standard coach seating, four across.

Venice to Florence: $145 for full Economy because the Super Economy fares were sold out despite buying as early as possible; we again traveled in “Standard Class” or 2nd Class, which is standard coach seating, four across.

Florence to Lucca and return (purchased same day): ~ €50  (roughly €7 per person each way, or about $10 each way per person); this was not a fast train, merely a day trip to Lucca and back, but it’s interesting to see what a same-day, walk-up fare costs on a local commuter train.

Florence to Rome: $103, again a Super Economy fare bucket (the cheapest possible price) for the next step up from the lowest class of onboard service, one called “Premium Economy,” which is also four across like Standard Class but with glass half-height dividers and slightly better seat quality and some minimal free onboard amenities, such as juice or coffee.

Rome to Milan: $245, once again a Super Economy fare bucket, but this time in cushy “Business Class,” which is extremely comfortable with leather seats set three-across and with substantial glass dividers for privacy; there is a First Class service, too, but Business Class was so incredibly comfortable that I cannot imagine how it could be topped.

Total cost for all the trains was roughly $700, a real bargain, I thought, for a family of four, much cheaper and far less stressful than renting and driving a car.  Thank God for the trains of Italy!

We arrived on December 20, and the Milano Centrale station looked more like Grand Central Terminal at rush hour: wall-to-wall people going hither and yon for the holidays.  We found the platform for our train to Venice, which, as it turned out, was a Swiss trainset that originated in Geneva and terminated in Venice.  It arrived a few minutes late, and we hurried aboard to find our seats and stow our luggage.

Our assignment was four seats facing each other over a small table, and there was lots of room between seats to push in our bags.  There are also overhead storage racks which are quite ample.  This configuration was repeated on all the fast trains we rode, including four seats facing each other over a small table.  It is a great design for travelers, utilitarian and comfortable at the same time.

The Swiss trainset looked much like French TGVs, German ICEs,  Belgian/French/German Thalys trains, and Italian fast trains: sleek, bullet-nosed at both ends, and very cool to look at.

The schedule from Milan to Venice (about 175 miles) was 2 hours, 35 minutes, for an average 70 MPH, which seemed slow for such a short journey.  We soon found out why, as the train stopped in many places en route.  I also suspect the line wasn’t upgraded to super-fast train standards, either.  We didn’t mind, as it whooshed along between stations at very high speeds and was very comfortable.  I bought pizza for the kids and Swiss beers from my wife and me in the mid-train diner, which in addition to white tablecloth table service boasted a stand-up bar for purchasing takeaway snacks and drinks.  The table service looked first rate, but it was empty of customers.

After a tall, cold Swiss brew I dozed off and on and enjoyed watching the Italian countryside fly by.  We reached Venice about 20 minutes late, owing to heavy student traffic boarding at several of the stops, but the trip and the train were enjoyable and comfortable.  We didn’t mind the slight delay, especially given it was close to Christmas.

The train from Venice to Florence was a flashy red Trenitalia Frecciarossa, one of many such trainsets like it that we would see in Italy.  There are several “levels” of Tenitalia fast train service, of which Frecciarossa is one of the speediest.  Since 2012, there are also privately-operated Italo fast trains running on the same rails competing for riders and Euros with Trenitalia.  We didn’t ride any of the Italo trains, though I hear they are comparable in every way to the Trenitalia lineup of speed demons between major Italian cities.

Venice to Florence is under 200  miles and scheduled at 2 hours, 5 minutes, for an average of almost 100 MPH.  We stopped once at Bologna, but otherwise it was a true high speed run all the way.  Once again the train was extremely comfortable in every way.  My only complaint was the new, very long tunnels through the Apennines between Bologna and Florence.  Almost the entire distance is now underground, which means there are no opportunities to enjoy the mountain scenery en route.  Too, the trains move in and out of long tunnels for short distances in the open, and each time there is a great deal of inner ear distress caused by the high speeds and tremendous changes in interior air pressure.  After a beer, however, I hardly noticed it, and we arrived Florence dead on time.

While in Florence we made a day trip to Lucca and back via train, using standard local equipment (there are no fast trains to Lucca).  On that rainy December 26 in both Lucca and in Florence the Senagalese and other North Africans were everywhere  (at the railroad stations and all around the towns) selling umbrellas for €3 (about $5) or whatever you could bargain for. Many Italians, I was told, resent them for their ubiquitous presence, persistence, and business acumen. Very ingenious and industrious, if you ask me.

As I noted above, the train trip was made on walk-up, same-day fares that we bought from one of the many “Fast Ticket” automated ticket machines.  Since these were local train both ways, there were no seat reservations required; however, unlike the fast trains, tickets had to be validated at the respective platforms before use.  Unlike my last trip to Italy when I forgot to validate my tickets, I made sure this time to do so.

The local trains were clean and comfortable inside, and they ran on time (though we didn’t much care that day).  Train exteriors, though, were often marred with ugly graffiti that reminded me of NYC subways in the 1980s.

A particular annoyance at the stations–all the train stations in Italy–are the pervasive smokers.  Standing around waiting for trains, one can never escape the billowing clouds of cigarette smoke generated from Italians killing time.  There are no smoke-free zones, and even if there were, I doubt that Italians would honor them.

Florence to Rome is also about 200 miles, a distance we covered in an astonishing one and a half hours (with no stops) for an average of 133 MPH.  Our kids barely had time to finish their pizza before we were rolling to a stop at Roma Termini.  It was very sweet to make that distance so quickly.

Rome to Milan was the longest distance we traveled on a single train at 375 miles.  The nonstop schedule was just under 3 hours at an average 127 MPH.  The only discernable slowdown was traversing the trackage around (but not stopping in) Florence.  Our longest train ride was also the most comfortable, as we were in Business Class, with luxurious leather seating and just three seats across.

High glass dividers between rows of seats made the experience quiet and private, and at the end of our car (Car 3) were two private compartments with red leather seats reminiscent of private Wagon-Lits travel: deluxe indeed.  But we did not have the foresight to book those seats.  In any case we were perfectly content as it was, and I’d unquestionably book Business Class for business travel anywhere and everywhere in Italy that it was available.

I noted above that Premium Economy came with complimentary coffee or juice.  Business Class extras were identical.  In both classes, a small snack was offered, such as cookies or nuts.  Once again I chose to make my way several cars up to the diner, which is always in the center of each trainset, to fetch pizza for the kids and beer for my wife and me.  I would happily have purchased Champagne, but, sadly, none was available for purchase.  That’s one small luxury that I’d like to see Trenitalia match the SNCF’s onboard service.

On every train a cart of drinks and food for sale was rolled through each car, but by the time it reached our car, we had what we wanted already.

While waiting at Roma Termini for our train to Milan, my wife found the gigantic ads for men’s underwear on the big screens adjacent to the train information boards to be particularly amusing:

On a previous visit to Italy I rented an Avis car at Malpensa and drove all over the country.  It was stressful and very expensive, and I was both exhausted and tremendously relieved when I returned the car at MXP.  By contrast this trip was stress-free, thanks to the excellent rail service.

It was as near-perfect as one could reasonably hope for, with every train clean, comfortable, on time or nearly so, a far superior experience compared to flying (well, a root canal is preferable to flying some days).  And all that relaxation and ease at a reasonable price to boot.  I highly recommend it.

3 thoughts on “Riding today’s Italian fast trains

  1. Thank you for the article and the information. I too like to travel by train. I note that when I took the Italian train, there was about a 50% failure rate with their ticket machines with respect to reading the chip on a chip and pin credit card. However, the biggest obnoxious thing was getting off at the non smoking station, I walk by the train locomotive and with the window open, the driver is looking out, smoking a cigar. Obviously they have a flagrant disregard for EU smoking rules, there seems to be no recourse. The engineer should have most certainly been fired for his outrageous act. I also noticed employees smoking in the concourse below the train station. Until they address these issues, riding the trains in Italy will be a less than acceptable experience.

  2. I recently made and paid for reservations on the Trenitalia website for two one way trips.
    I was supposedly to get emails back with PNR and CP. I did not. I emailed them with the problems some weeks ago, and have rec’d no answer. I’ll try again. I caution any who attempts to use the website,
    Does anyone have any suggestions?
    Bye the by, I do enjoy your blog.

  3. Wineries, loved driving in Piedmont. Also driving around Montalcino/Montepulciano and Sienna. TomTom Europe kept us without stress.

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