Two-Track Nation: What Italy's Trains Say About The Limits Of Progress
Crossing Sicily by train can take as long as flying from Rome to New York. The tracks and carriages are outdated, the trains rarely leave on time. Meanwhile, the country's high-speed train lines are state-of-the-art and decidedly punctual. It's a metaphor (and more) for Italy's two-class society.
ROME — In the upscale lounges and silent carriages of the Frecciarossa high-speed train lines, which connect Rome to Milan non-stop, you can't even imagine the country's regional train lines.
They travel on another network of tracks, have different signs, are prisoners of narrower boundaries. Above all, they follow their own time schedules.
Italy is on two different time zones when traveling by rail: that of the streamlined convoys of Trenitalia and Italo that more or less respect what is promised on the departures board, and that of regional trains, which subvert all expectations by questioning not only the “when” (it will arrive) but also the “if.”
They almost never share the same station. If they do, as in Bologna, high-speed trains have their own space, underground and invisible. They are worlds apart even before they leave. Upstairs, there is a small waiting area where a diverse group of people stands, harried, and huddled together in front of many parallel tracks.
Below is a huge space, a desert in which to wander, with only four tracks. Yet, arrivals and departures are constant, and the haste of passengers is repaid. Above is a constant announcement of delays.
In other cities, such as Rome, slower trains, if not at other stations, are diverted hundreds of meters from the main entrance, where those who do not catch them cannot see them. One arrives at the track already tired, and the platform has numbering that recalls a Harry Potter novel.
The presence of the train also seems to be the result of a spell: it amazes every time.Those who travel on high-speed trains do not know the commuter routes. They don’t know where this cheerful train doesn’t leave for. If they have to go from Naples to Sorrento, they book a car.
How do time and space behave in this universe?
They look at the trains of the Circumvesuviana — the railway network of the Naples metropolitan area — as one looks at Pompeii: ruins that are maintained for the available wonder of the tourist, especially foreigners. In 2023, it was voted once again the worst rail line in the country, and the news was greeted with irony online.
When things don’t work one protests, when there is no more hope, some sort of record-breaking pride takes over, mixed with a desperate sense of irony that has led to the creation of Facebook and Instagram pages, such as Rome sucks and Vesuviana state of mind.
What are the unsolved mysteries of the regional lines? Easy: do ticket inspectors really exist? Yes, but for peace of mind, they rarely appear.
How do time and space behave in this universe? As they see fit, every other day and they stop on demand.
A Frecciarossa train in Milano Centrale.
Tracks the same for a century
The Sicilian railway system is a multiverse, a cosmic expansion that covers the Trapani-Catania leg (300 km) in the same time (9 hours) as a Rome-New York flight (6,889 km). The tracks, like the sky, are the same as they were a century ago.
Sanne Derks, a Dutch photographer, had decided a year ago to travel on three of these lines: the Circumetnea, the Syracuse-Gela and the Piraineto-Trapani. He had expected the charm of small things and that misery so noble adorned by surrender. He had planned two and a half days of travel, imagining jumping from one train to another, with the smell of orange blossoms following him from the lowered windows.
Among cancellations, delays, and detours, it took him twice as long, mostly finding himself aboard substitute buses that were not as poetic as the locomotive.
Nevertheless, the foreigner is inclined to find in this daily debacle a distinctive and special trait of the country. Giuseppe Mandolfo, a commuter who boarded that uncertain train five days a week to study at the police academy, didn’t share the photographer’s enthusiasm.
Petitions and broken promises
During his election campaign in 2017, it took League leader Matteo Salvini seven hours to get from Trapani to Palermo. Afterwards, he promised “new infrastructures.” Now that he is Minister of Infrastructure, he repeats it, but nothing has changed.
Meanwhile, regional convoys age, but continue to travel.
On the Roma Beach route, they are 33 years old on average, 21 years older than the national average. They pass every half hour instead of every 15 minutes. Petitions were signed against the “chicken coops” (platforms and convoys) and people got a “sottiletta” (an additional train every hour and a half).
Toilets break down. Vandals throw rocks at windows. Occasionally, as with Rome’s buses, they catch fire.
And everyone goes on with their day.
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