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Getting around Italy by Train
By Alan Zisman © 2018-09-20
We love Italy and go there whenever we can - though it's more of a ordeal getting there from the West Coast of Canada than, say, the UK. We just got back from our 10th trip this week. Much to the surprise of some folks we know, though, we've never rented a car - when we're there, we get around on foot much of the time, and when that won't work, we go by train.
The Italian train system goes to all the big cities and most of the small towns. (Not all of them - once in a while we have to take a bus. But not usually). And train service is reasonably comfortable, reasonably quick, and reasonably inexpensive - about half the cost of comparable British service, for instance.
There are some quirks - magnified by language, though the Italian train system tries to offer its services in English alongside Italian.
A few things to know to get started - most of the trains are part of a nationalized country-wide network run by Gruppo Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane under the name Trenitalia. There is some competition from ItaliaRail - but they only operate between major cities. There are some local, independent rail lines, like the Circumversuviana line that goes between Naples and Sorrento, with stops including Pompeii. But most of the time, you'll be dealing with Trenitalia - and that's what I'm going to focus on.
Trenitalia offers three levels of trains: Regionale trains are the local trains - they run, mostly within a single region, as the name suggests - stopping at many small stations along the way. Slowest, due to the frequent stops, but also the least expensive option. No reserved seats. You can sometimes buy first class or second class tickets - first class has 3 seats in a row, second class has 4 seats in a row, but otherwise there's not much difference. (Not all trains have first class seating available).
Intercity trains make fewer stops at small stations - making for a faster run at a higher price. Often, tickets include assigned seating on these trains - so make sure you sit in the assigned seats1
'Freccia' trains (Italian for 'arrow') offer the fastest service - only available between major cities. You pay extra for the extra speed (up to 400 km/hr!). For instance, you can travel from downtown Rome to Venice in 3 hours and 45 minutes on a Frecciargento ('Silver Arrow') or Frecciarossa ('Red Arrow') for €50-75. Or spend 6 hours on an Intercity train for €57. Or you could take 11 hours (including 2 changes) on a series of Regionale trains for €42. I know which I would choose!
You can book trips online and in advance - Tickets are discounted if bought online and in advance (and also if you purchase round-trip tickets). I've rarely done this - My travel plans are rarely so carefully organized that I want to commit to a specific train long in advance. (You may feel otherwise). However, I do find Trenitalia's online scheduling information very useful and refer to it often - both before travelling and while I'm in Italy. It lets me know if there is train service where I'd like to go - and if so, how often it runs. If there are a couple of trains each hour, then I can be pretty flexible in my planning. If there's just one train in the afternoon and one in the evening, though, I want to make sure I get to the station on time!
Trenitalia's website is available in English: https://ca.trenitalia.it-inter.com/ - you can customize it for your country, prefered currency, and language. New feature (Sept 2018) - you can now enter Italian city names with your choice of the English language name or the Italian name: Rome vs Roma, Florence vs Firenze, Venice vs Venezia, etc. Previously, even if you were using the English language version of the website, you needed to know and use the Italian version of city names.
(The older English language page: http://www.trenitalia.com/tcom-en is still online and may work more efficiently - but requires you to use Italian-language city names - Roma, Genova, Milano, etc). The illustrations below were captured on the new page.
So when I get to Genova Brignole, I'm going to wander over to one of the Trenitalia ticket machines scattered around the lobby of the station. Note that you may see a mix of Trenitalia ticket machines and machines from the alternative ItaliaRail company ('Italo'). Pick the one you want:
They feature touch screens - and the first screen includes a set of small flag icons along the bottom of the screen to change the language from Italian. Tap a finger on the UK flag icon to change the language to English. When you do that, you'll get a new screen - with a voice in delightfully Italian-accented English warning you to 'Beware of Pickpockets' - thus letting everyone in the station know that an English-speaking tourist is in their midst.
(Do take pickpockets seriously! Crowded, busy train stations can be places frequented by pickpockets. See, for instance: Train Scams and Pickpockets – What to watch out for)
The ticket machines work similarly to the website, but with an older version of the software that doesn't let you use the English versions of Italian city names. You have to use Genova, Roma, Firenze, Venezia, Milano, etc.
In larger stations, if you prefer, you can get your tickets the old fashioned way - from a ticket agent at a counter. But you'll probably have to wait in line and deal with someone who's English is only a bit better than your Italian. And many smaller stations have no ticket office - you'll just have to deal with a ticket machine.
If your proposed trip requires that you change trains, you will get separate tickets for each leg of the trip. For instance, in 2017, we went from Varenna (on Lake Como) to Venice - we had to change trains in Milan. So the machine printed out two tickets - one for the Varenna-Milan train, the second for Milan-Venice. The second ticket included reserved seats. Note that you'll have to exit the first train, figure out the binario (track #) for the second train, and haul your luggage there, in some cases pretty quickly!
Here's a smaller ticket for a different trip:
Notice that each ticket has something printed along an edge. It didn't come out of the ticket machine with that. Before you use any ticket - train, bus, metro, etc, you have to validate it.
On nearly every train trip at some point while the train is in motion, a conductor will come around to see your ticket - and to check that it's been validated. He or she may scan your ticket with a tablet. If you haven't validated your ticket, you are subject to a fine - being a foreigner or a tourist or not speaking Italian is not an excuse.
Similarly, using a lower-priced regionale ticket on a more expensive train - or a 2nd class ticket in a 1st class seat - can result in you needing to pay the difference in fares plus a fine. You need to pay right then and there - the conductors accept cash, or can process credit cards even on a moving train.
If you have multiple tickets (as in the Varenna to Venice trip I mentioned above) you'll need to validate each ticket - validate the second ticket when you get to the station where you're changing trains.
You've been warned!
(If you have a printout of a ticket ordered online or a digital version on a phone or tablet, of course you won't be able to shove that in a validation machine. The conductor will want to scan the bar code onboard the train).
While the ticket has a lot of information (in Italian), there's one missing bit of information. Almost all train stations have multiple tracks. You need to know what track ('binario' in Italian) to go to in order to get on the right train. There are printed departure schedules (in yellow) posted around the station along with video screens for arriving and departing trains. Both of these list the binario where the train can be found. But in many cases, there's a catch.
We've bought a ticket - in this case - from Santa Margheritte to Genova Principe. But when I look at the departures board, I don't see my destination listed.
It turns out that the train I'm going to be travelling is ending up in Milan ('Milano') - Genova Principe is just one of the stations it will be stopping at. It's listed on both the yellow printed sheet and on the video screen as a train for Milano. But my ticket doesn't say that anywhere! How can I find the information I need?
The larger ticket does give two pieces of useful information. One is the train number - on our ticket it's 'Treno 665'. The other is the departure time: 13.47. (The smaller ticket lacks that information - you might want to jot the departure time down on a scrap of paper when you're buying the ticket).
Take a look at the yellow printed departure schedule (not the white arrival schedule) - found in several places around the station:
Here's a blowup of a section of the departure schedule.... you'll see the trains leaving this station startiong at 12.00 (noon) - check the departure time; the final destination of each train is in big letters, below that are the various stops, along with the scheduled arrival times. Hopefully you can find which train you have a ticket for. Along the right, the numbers on the blue circles indicate the track number ('Bin' for 'binario').
But there's another possible problem. Sometimes the binario has changed - after the poster has been printed.
So double-check by taking a look at the up to the minute video screen. There's typically a large screen in the lobby of the station, with smaller versions at various places around the station, including alongside the tracks.
'Partenze' = Departures. Again, this is showing the final destination of each train - which may or may not be where you're going. Beside that 'Ora' (hour) indicates the scheduled departure time. 'Rit' indicates whether the train is late ('ritardo'). 'Bin' for 'binario' is the track where you can get on the train.
In many stations, in order to get to any binario other than track 1, you'll need to go down to an underground passage below the tracks, then back up to your desired track. There may be an elevator - but be prepared - you may need to drag your suitcase down and then up a flight of stairs and along a corridor. (And repeat the process when you arrive at your destination). This is one reason to try to get to the station with time to spare - and can be a problem if you're rushing to make a tight connection.
A few times, the binario has changed shortly before the train arrives - there should be a notification on the P.A. system about this - in Italian and then in English... so stay alert. we were in a suburban station outside Rome and suddenly, after an announcement that we hadn't understood everyone left the track except us. We finally looked at the screen and realized that our train was coming to a different track - we had to scurry with out baggage to get to the right place in time.
On the tracks there is usually another video screen showing the next train to arrive - and in small print scrolling through the various stations where that train will stop. You can check to make sure your destination is listed. There will be an announcement - in Italian and then in English - shortly before your train pulls up.
So you've validated your ticket (if you forgot, there's usually a validation machine somewhere on the track), found your binario, and dragged your baggage along. And finally your train has arrived!
Note that most train carriages have a big number 2 on the side - this isn't the number of the carriage - it indicates that it's a 2nd class carriage. A few carriages near the front have a number 1 on them - these are for first class passengers. Frankly there's not much difference - wider seats in first class. But no complimentary glasses of prosecco. (Still, when the difference between 1st and 2nd class is nominal, we've sometimes purchased 1st class tickets).
If you have a reserved seat, find the right carriage - the number is often on a piece of paper taped to the window on the door. There's a conductor alongside the train who can help you if you have questions.
Get onboard and find your seat. If there's no reserved seating, sit anywhere you like. There is usually an open baggage area at the end of the carriage and often a baggage rack in the middle. There are overhead places for baggage - it can be a chore getting a big suitcase up, but fellow passengers will often offer to help. In some cases, you can squeeze a suitcase in the space between two seats.
The photo was taken in a second class carriage of a regionale train. It's reasonably comfortable - certainly more so than economy class on a plane! Clean, modern. Just fine.
You may find older carriages on some of the secondary routes - don't blame me if your train doesn't look like this. On the other hand, Intercity trains will be a bit fancier, often with multiple levels. And the high speed Freccia train interiors are positively space age, with video screens reporting the train's current speed, which can be reach up to 400 km/hour or so as the train speeds through the countryside.
Several cities have suburban train lines that integrate with those cities' local bus or metro systems. For instance, in Rome, there's a train line that starts in a station right beside the Piramide metro station and runs down to the Ostia beach resort town. Your Rome metro ticket can be used for these trains (and vice versa) - no additional ticket needed. In Genoa, a train line runs through western and eastern suburbs - tickets to these stations currently costs a modest €1.60 - and can be used for additional travel on the city's bus/metro/funicular/elevator network, replacing a €1.50 bus ticket. The trick - the standard Trenitalia ticket machines in these suburban stations (which also service the national trains) look like they'll sell you the needed ticket - but then don't show any available trains - instead, buy your ticket from a ticket agent (if the station has one) or from a 'tabachi' - the vendor of cigarettes, who also sell bus tickets in most Italian towns. The Genoa Nervi station has a tabachi stand right inside the station, for instance - in Roma-Piramide, there's a tabachi inside the metro station, right beside the exit.
I hope you've found this helpful - and that you have a great trip. Email me if you have questions or comments.
You may also want to take a look at: Taking the Train in Italy
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