How Italy’s high-speed trains killed Alitalia

Read Time:7 Minute, 36 Second


(CNN)— More than a decade ago, when Francesco Galietti had to take a train from his hometown of Rome to Milan to work, he had flown nearly 400 miles. Today, he took the train.

Galletti, the CEO of Policy Sonar, a political risk consulting firm based in Rome, is not alone. According to data released in 2019 by Ferrovie dello Stato, the Italian national railway company, the number of passengers taking trains on the country’s main commercial routes (between Rome and Milan) has almost quadrupled in ten years, from 1 million in 2008 The number of visits increased to 3.6 million in 2018.

Now, more than two-thirds of people traveling between the two cities take the train. This is a significant recognition of the Italian high-speed rail network, which debuted in 2008.

It only takes 2 hours and 59 minutes to drive nearly 400 miles between Milan and Rome. And, of course, the train stations are all in the city center, and there is no need to show up long before you take the train-the doors close two minutes before departure.

In contrast, Fiumicino to Rome takes at least half an hour’s drive, check in 90 minutes before departure, fly for an hour in the air, and then land outside Milan-the nearest Linate Airport is away from the city It’s about 20 minutes by car-and it’s obvious why people choose trains.

This makes you wonder, as Alitalia prepares to close on October 15th-has the high-speed rail killed Alitalia?

Galletti thinks so.

“Alitalia has been a bird with short wings from the beginning-for an international airline, it is very focused on the domestic market,” he said.

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

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 sense, Italians spend most of their time in Italy on vacation, and tourists want to tick the length and breadth of the country. Flying to Milan and then to Naples or Rome is a natural step for people from countries where air travel is common, such as the United States.

However, Galietti said that focusing on the domestic market meant that when the low-cost flight revolution began, Alitalia was vulnerable to competition — and then high-speed trains.

“This is a nasty cocktail,” he said. “there [domestic] They face fierce competition from low-cost airlines and trains. Myself, if I had to go to Milan, Turin or Venice, I would take the train like many others. Frecciarossa (one of the high-speed trains) from city center to city center, you won’t land 20 miles outside the suburbs-it’s a terrible race [for Alitalia].”

Tourists feel the same way. Cristina Taylor, a regular Italian customer from the UK, said she found it was “easier” to travel by train.

“You depart and arrive from the city center, there is no airport check-in or airport-to-city transit. And over the years it has become better to accommodate international passengers because there is a suitable place to put your suitcases. .

“I do think it is worth the money-you can save time and money.”

New sweet life

Trenitalia's Frecce train travels through the countryside at a speed of 224 miles per hour.

Trenitalia’s Frecce train travels through the countryside at a speed of 224 miles per hour.

Alesia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Today’s high-speed system is a far cry from the railway network of the past in Italy, where trains used to be slow, outdated and often late.

There are even two high-speed companies to choose from. The national operator Trenitalia owns the Frecce (“arrow”) trains Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca and Frecciargento (red, white and silver arrows), each of which covers a part of Italy and is roughly T-shaped along the northern part of the country before heading straight to the Italian peninsula. The fastest Frecciarossa train can reach speeds of 360 kilometers (224 miles) per hour.

At the same time, the private company Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori launched the Italo train in 2012, covering 54 cities every day. Italy is the only country in the world with two high-speed rail operators. It is also the location of the world’s first high-speed freight service, which runs between Bologna and Madaloni in Campania and only takes three and a half hours.

The price is relatively modest because rail travel is subsidized-compared with France, Germany and Switzerland, Galletti said the fare is “not much.” On board, the experience is no different from the airline experience. Every passenger must have a reserved seat to board the plane-no one can just jump into the car and hope to find a place. Passengers can choose their seats when purchasing tickets and can accumulate points to win their status. Both Trenitalia and Italo have lounges at their main stations for top travelers.

Lead by example

The increase in Italian high-speed rail passengers coincides with the decrease in domestic flights.

The increase in Italian high-speed rail passengers coincides with the decrease in domestic flights.

Massimo Insabato / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty Images

Carlo Barbant is one of them. As director of the Institute of Polar Science at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, he regularly travels to Rome to take the Frecciarossa train.

“It’s more convenient for everything,” he said. “I like the carbon footprint first, but I like that I can check in a few minutes before departure, can move around easily and feel very safe and comfortable.”

As a climate scientist, Barbante always takes the train — “If we try to persuade people to reduce their carbon footprint in any way, we have to give an example — show in the first row that we are using public transportation,” he said. “I think this is a responsibility-trains are one of the most reliable ways to reduce the carbon footprint.”

However, before the high-speed revolution, Italian trains were too slow to make Venice to Rome (about 330 miles) a viable day trip. Instead, he used to ride night trains.

He said that until a few years ago, there was a super high-speed train that had just stopped in Venice, Padua and Rome, and it took just over three hours. Today, with additional stops in Ferrara, Bologna and Florence, there are fewer than four stops. But this is still faster than flying.

Barbante has just returned from Geneva by train from Venice. “Very comfortable-there is no reason to fly. You have enough time to work and relax,” he said.

“I think high-speed trains are taking up a large part of the domestic flight market. They are faster and more comfortable.”

Statistics prove him.

Trenitalia commissioned a report in 2019 to study the changes in the first decade of high-speed trains. It shows that the number of trains on the line has doubled, and the number of passengers on its high-speed trains has soared from 6.5 million passengers in 2008 to 40 million in 2018-not including those who use Italo.

The number of high-speed trains in the fleet doubled to 144. In 2018, 69% of all passengers between Rome and Milan took the train — an increase of 7.4% in just three years. At the same time, in the three years ending in 2018, air travel has fallen by nearly 7%, with a market share of only 19.5%.

The Railway Revolution in Italy

Worldwide, the Italo train is a private competitor to the state-owned Frecce train.

Worldwide, the Italo train is a private competitor to the state-owned Frecce train.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

There is also an obvious chain reaction. Although real estate prices in Milan fell by 20.5% from 2008 to 2018, the prices of office buildings around the Rogoredo and Porta Garibaldi high-speed stations increased by about 10%.

The number of tourists taking the train soared from 1.8 million in 2008 to 7.3 million in 2018. Rome to Florence and Venice are the most popular tourist routes-the latter used to be the main flight route in the past.

In fact, the connection between Italian trains and airplanes has been very clear in 2019, when Alitalia and Alitalia proposed a merger between the rapidly sinking airlines.

Galletti said that the former Ferrovie dello Stato Mauro Moretti had a real vision for a possible merger. It is: “If we can integrate transportation, why are you cannibalizing each other? He has a grand vision, some of which are planes, some are trains, and the last few miles are buses. We owe him the Frecciarossa revolution, which sounds like A very enlightened proposal.”

However, without Moretti, Galletti called the idea “suspicious” and said that if Alitalia merges with Italian Railways, Italy’s subsidies for train travel may be a way of self-help. He said that by then, it “is no longer visionary, but opportunistic.”

After all, Alitalia is not opportunistic enough. “Surprisingly, they have very few flights abroad, and they are not the owners of their own territory-the others are,” Galletti said, adding that their cost structure makes them “bleed.”

As Alitalia’s flight took off for the last time on October 14, the two new owners of its former site-the Frecce and Italo trains-are growing.

Top image source: Alessandro Bremec/NurPhoto/AP

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