How Italian high-speed trains killed Alitalia

(CNN) – Over ten years ago, when Francesco Galietti had to take the train from his native Rome to Milan for his job, he was traveling the road for almost 400 miles. Today he takes the train.

Galietti, CEO of Rome-based political risk consultancy Policy Sonar, is not alone. Figures released in 2019 by the Italian railway company Ferrovie dello Stato show that the number of passengers taking the train on the country’s main trade route, between Rome and Milan, has almost quadrupled in a decade, from 1 million in 2008 to 3 , 6 million in 2018..

More than two-thirds of people traveling between the two cities now take the train. This is a remarkable endorsement of the Italian high-speed rail network, which debuted in 2008.

Traveling those nearly 400 miles between Milan and Rome takes just 2 hours and 59 minutes. And, of course, the stations are in the city center, and you don’t have to show up long before your train – the doors close two minutes before departure.

Compare that to a minimum of a half hour drive to Fiumicino in Rome, checking in 90 minutes before departure, an hour in the air and then landing outside Milan – Linate airport, the closest. , is about a 20-minute drive from the city – and it’s obvious why people choose the train.

Which makes you wonder, as the Italian national airline is set to shut down on October 15, has high-speed railways killed Alitalia?

Galietti thinks so.

“Alitalia was a bird with its very clipped wings from the start – for an international carrier it was very focused on the domestic market,” he says.

Italian high-speed stations, such as Porta Susa in Turin, are destinations in themselves.

Enrico Spanu / REDA & CO / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Of course, in a way that makes sense – Italians primarily spend their vacations in Italy, and visitors want to see sights the length and breadth of the country. Flying to Milan and then to Naples or Rome is a natural stopover for people coming from countries like the United States, where air travel is common.

But, says Galietti, this national focus meant that Alitalia was sensitive to competition when the low-cost flight revolution began, and then from high-speed trains.

“It was a nasty cocktail,” he says. “On that [domestic] market, they had massive competition from airlines and low cost trains. Me, if I have to go to Milan, Turin or Venice, I take the train, like many others. The Frecciarossa (one of the high speed trains) goes from city center to city center, you don’t land 20 miles outside of the suburbs – it’s terrible competition [for Alitalia]. “

Tourists feel the same. Cristina Taylor, a frequent visitor to Italy from the UK, says she finds the train “easier”.

“You are departing and arriving from city centers, there is no check-in at the airport and no transit between airports and cities. Plus, they have improved over the years in terms of welcoming people. international passengers in the sense that there are suitable places to put your suitcases.

“I think it’s good value for money – you save time and money.”

The new dolce vita

Trenitalia's Frecce trains cross the countryside at 224 mph.

Trenitalia’s Frecce trains cross the countryside at 224 mph.

Alessia Pierdomenico / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Today’s high-speed system is a far cry from the rail network of Italy’s past, in which trains were slow, outdated and generally late.

You even have the choice between two high-speed companies. Trenitalia, the public operator, has its Frecce (“arrows”), Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca and Frecciargento (red, white and silver arrows) trains, each covering a section of Italy, roughly T-shaped along from the northern part of the country, then straight on towards the Italian peninsula. The fastest Frecciarossa trains can go at 360 km / h (224 mph).

Meanwhile, Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori, a private company, launched its Italo trains in 2012, covering 54 cities per day. Italy is the only country in the world to have two high-speed train operators. It is also home to the world’s first high-speed freight service, connecting Bologna to Maddaloni, Campania in just three and a half hours.

Prices are relatively modest, as train travel is subsidized – Galietti calls the fares “not much” compared to France, Germany and Switzerland. And on board, the experience is not unlike that of an airline. Each passenger must have a reserved seat to board – no one is allowed to come on board and hope to find a seat. Passengers can choose their seat when purchasing a ticket and can accumulate points that grant them status. Both Trenitalia and Italo have lounges at their main stations for high profile travelers.

Give the example

The increase in the number of passengers on high-speed trains in Italy has coincided with a decline in domestic flights.

The increase in the number of passengers on high-speed trains in Italy has coincided with a decline in domestic flights.

Massimo Insabato / Portfolio Mondadori / Getty Images

Carlo Barbante is one of them. Director of the Institute of Polar Sciences at Ca ‘Foscari University in Venice, he travels regularly to Rome and takes the Frecciarossa train.

“It’s more convenient for everything,” he says. “I like the carbon footprint first and foremost, but I like being able to check in a few minutes before departure, being able to walk around easily and feeling very safe and comfortable.”

As a climatologist, Barbante has always taken the train – “If we are trying to convince people to reduce their carbon footprint in any way, we have to lead by example – be in the front row to show that we are using public transport, ”he says. “I take it as a must – the train is one of the most reliable ways to reduce your carbon footprint.”

Before the high-speed revolution, however, Italian trains were too slow to make Venice to Rome (around 330 miles) a viable day trip. Instead, he took the night trains.

Until a few years ago, he says, there was a super-fast train that stopped right in Venice, Padua and Rome, which took just over three hours. Today, with additional stops in Ferrara, Bologna and Florence, it’s just under four. But it’s still faster door-to-door than stealing.

Barbante has just returned from a trip to Geneva from Venice, all by train. “It was very comfortable – there was no reason to take a flight. You have plenty of time to work and relax,” he says.

“I think high-speed trains are taking a good share of the domestic market. They are faster and more comfortable.

Statistics confirm this.

Trenitalia commissioned a report in 2019 to examine how things had changed in the first decade of high-speed trains. It showed that the number of trains on the lines had doubled and that the number of passengers on its high-speed trains had increased from 6.5 million in 2008 to 40 million in 2018, not counting those using Italo.

The number of high-speed trains in the fleet had doubled to 144, and in 2018, 69% of all passengers going from Rome to Milan took the train, an increase of 7.4% in just three years. Meanwhile, air travel fell almost 7% in the three years to 2018, with just 19.5% of the market.

The railway revolution in Italy

In a world first, Italo trains are the private rivals of state-owned Frecce trains.

In a world first, Italo trains are the private rivals of state-owned Frecce trains.

Andreas Solaro / AFP / Getty Images

There were also obvious ripple effects. While real estate prices in Milan fell 20.5% from 2008 to 2018, office prices around Rogoredo and Porta Garibaldi high-speed stations increased by around 10%.

The number of tourists using trains increased from 1.8 million in 2008 to 7.3 million in 2018. Rome-Florence and Venice are the most popular tourist routes – the latter would have once been a preferred flight route.

In fact, the link between Italian trains and planes was clearly established in 2019, when a merger was considered between Alitalia and Trenitalia, which was rapidly sinking.

Former Ferrovie dello Stato Mauro Moretti had a real vision of a possible merger, says Galietti. It was, “Why would you cannibalize each other if we can integrate transportation?” He had a grand vision of certain sections by plane, others by train and the last kilometers by bus. very enlightened proposition. “

However, without Moretti, Galietti calls the idea “shady” and suggests that the fact that train travel is subsidized in Italy could have been a way for Alitalia to save itself, had it merged with Ferrovie dello Stato. At this stage, he said, it would have been “no longer visionary but opportunistic”.

In the end, Alitalia was not opportunistic enough. “They had surprisingly few flights abroad and were not in control of their own land – others were,” says Galietti, who also says their cost structure allowed them to “bleed” .

And while Alitalia’s flights take off for the last time on October 14, two of the new masters of its former territory, the Frecce and Italo trains, continue to grow stronger.

Top photo credit: Alessandro Bremec / NurPhoto / AP

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