Getting from Town to Town by Train

A EuroStar train parked at the central railway station in Milan, a tourist sight in itself with its massive testosterone-soaked Fascist styling

As with the rest of western Europe, Italy has a very comprehensive railway network and the train would probably be the only mode of transport you would ever need when going from one town to another.

If your only experience with railways is on the KTM going between here and Kuala Lumpur, then be prepared for a whole different level of train travel. Trains in Italy (and Europe in general) are much faster than vehicles on the road, with cruising speeds that can go up to a blazing 300km/h for the high-velocity trains like the EuroStar shown at right.

Because trains are so extensively used in Italy, railways stations have become hubs for essential services and for connecting to the rest of the town, especially in the major cities. This is good news for tourists, as all the little conveniences like the tourist information office, bus links, taxi ranks, restaurants, bars, news stands and sometimes even pharmacies will be right there if you ever need them. Rome and Milan also have a metro station conveniently located in front of each and every one of their several railway stations.

There are several different categories of trains in Italy, each characterised by level of comfort, services offered, price and frequency of stops. But probably the most important factors affecting the visitors would be the speed and schedule of the service. If you are traveling from one major town to another, you will find that the fastest trains will also be the ones with the best departure and arrival times. Obviously, these will also be the most costly, but take comfort in the fact that trains in Italy are generally much less expensive than anywhere else in Western Europe. As a guide, prices should not exceed €35 for a trip between Milan and Venice (most other major routes are about the same distance or less).

You would need to take one of the slower local services if you are going off the beaten path. More likely than not, you would only need to do this at the nearest major stop, so you would not need to spend that long a time sitting on the same train waiting for it to depart from the next local stop, unless of course, you wish to have feel of what small town Italy is like.


Getting Tickets

Obviously, the first place to get your train tickets would be at the railway station itself. There is a ticket office at every station where you can buy tickets for both Italian and international (European) trains.

Generally the staff at major railway stations would speak English, albeit with limited fluency, and would be able to understand you well enough to provide you with the correct ticket. Still, it would be very helpful for both you and the ticketing officer if the information about your intended trip is written down on a piece of paper — departure point, destination, date and time of travel, and number of persons traveling. Train timetables are usually displayed near the ticket office and around the station, so check these first before joining the queue.

Although the above seems straightforward enough, there are still a few tricks you should know about getting your train ticket:

  1. Major stations usually have what looks like half the town's population queuing up to buy tickets, so you could end up wasting a huge amount of your precious time just buying a ticket. One way to avoid this is to buy your tickets first thing in the morning or around dinnertime. There might still be people, but it won't be as crowded as Little India on a Sunday evening.
  2. There are also self-service ticketing machines deployed around the station where you can get your tickets. These have instructions in English as well and should be relatively easy to operate, especially for simple journeys from one major town to another.

Sadly, the ticketing and pricing system is exceedingly complicated. There are special discounts for certain categories of passengers, supplements for various services, booking fees, penalties, etc, so much so it is futile to try and explain everything here. Still, the following is important to remember:

There is a discounted price for early reservation of the fast trains. This is automatically given as long as you buy your ticket at least 24 hours before your intended trip. Certain services even give you discounts if you book from a few weeks to 2 months ahead. Fast trains have compulsory seat reservation, which is already included in the price of the ticket. The implication is that while you are assured of a seat, you are also limited to the assigned train and schedule. Any change in your programme can only be accommodated by changing the ticket at the ticket office a day before your trip, with or without the payment of a penalty depending on the type of ticket. (I told you it's complicated.)

The Trenitalia logo - look out for these if you wish to buy a train ticket

There are two other possibilities for getting train tickets. One is through a local travel agency which show a "TRENITALIA" sign, similar to the one shown here on the right, on their shopfront. If you do happen to come across one of these agencies, then by all means get your tickets through them. This will save you the time and trouble of standing in line and you won't need to pay any extra for this.

The last way of getting train tickets is online via the Trenitalia website. Obviously, this requires internet access and a credit card. Be warned that this can get pretty confusing and that the purchase is not always successful, so if you wish to try this, good luck to you.

Click here to go to the Trenitalia English website.


Before You Board *Important!*

The ubiquitous yellow ticket validators that you must never EVER forget to use when taking the train.

Now comes the really tricky part. There are ticket validation machines deployed at strategic locations as you go from the ticket office towards the platforms. These are little yellow boxes with a slot where you insert your ticket to be stamped with the current date and time. An example is shown in the picture at left.

The validation of your ticket is a critical step in the process of the train trip. You must do this! Unless your ticket already shows the time and date of your trip, you will be heavily fined by the conductor on board and you shall be cursing and swearing till you come back home (or even long after that). Refusing is futile - you will be taken to the nearest police post, where you shall be forced to waste your time while being questioned, only to be fined eventually, leaving you to curse and swear in the very same manner, or worse.

Tickets for EuroStar, as well as for other trains requiring a seat reservation, do not require this process as they already contain the relevant information about your trip. Nevertheless, you might still want to do this, if only to get into the habit of doing so.

Should you happen to be rushing to catch the train and have no time to validate your ticket, the first thing to do is to go up to the conductor and request that he validates it for you. Make sure you do this before you board the train.

One last thing — never ever board the train without a ticket and expect to just buy it from the conductor. You will have to pay a huge penalty for this "privilege", and that could just cause you to end up with that familiar cursing and swearing... .


In the Event of a Strike

Now that you are no more in Singapore, be prepared for a whole new experience. As annoying as it is, train strikes do occur occasionally and there is a small chance that this will happen during your trip. Here is the official advice from Trenitalia:

On days when strikes are held Trenitalia guarantees minimum transport services provided as a result of agreements with trade unions and as considered appropriate by the Commission responsible for guaranteeing the implementation of Law 146/1990.

For local transport in particular, essential services have been planned for the peak time-bands (from 06:00 to 09:00 and from 18:00 to 21:00 Mon-Sat). Some long-distance trains are also guaranteed on all days including holidays.

If trains that are travelling when a strike begins are not cancelled at their departure station, they will normally reach their final destination - provided those stations can be reached within one hour from the strike's beginning. After this one hour, trains may stop and terminate at stations before the train's final destination.

In addition to the essential services, Trenitalia can provide additional services, on which information is given by notices at railway stations, the media and on this website.

Since unpredictable changes (e.g. change of route for long-distance trains) could also occur during a strike, customers are kindly requested to pay special attention to the notices given at the stations and by the media.

So here you are, stuck at the railway station in the midst of a train strike. You can't do anything to avoid it anyway, so why not take this as a (hopefully) rare opportunity to experience a truly authentic part of Italian life? When in Rome, do as the Romans do (and this applies to the rest of Italy as well):

Head straight for the ticket office and plant yourself in the queue with the rest of the world. When you eventually reach the ticket officer, request to change your ticket to the next available train (or another service as you prefer). There willl likely be some additional payment involved, especially if you have bought discounted tickets which comes with some ticketing restrictions.

As a precaution, consider asking your hotel reception a day before your departure if there is any notice of an impending strike. By law, notice of all such activities must be provided days in advance, and assuming the hotel clerk reads the newspapers, he or she should have the information. This way, with sufficient notice, you could go to the station a day ahead and take some measure to minimise wastage of time.

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