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Travel Tales Episode 24: The world's most bizarre city to city rail journey
The Frecce trains depart from the binari which have shelters along their length

Episode 24: The world's most bizarre city to city rail journey

Using the incredible journey by Frecce train from Bologna to Florence as an excuse to give an overview of Italian high speed rail travel.

| Last Updated: over 1 year ago
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Back to Bologna Centrale for the final time on this trip, but on this occasion I had my luggage with me.
The previous day’s adventures had given me the opportunity to suss out the optimum route for manoeuvring my suitcases towards the high speed train to Florence, which was departing from the AV station:

  1. Use the escalator down town to the passage way on the Ouest concourse (the passage way in the main entrance hall can only be accessed by a busy elevator and stairs)
  2. Walk through the passage way to the taxi drop off zone
  3. Use the somewhat hidden elevator on the other side of the taxi drop off zone, to go down to the AV (high speed) station concourse.
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  4. Work out which of the other multiple elevators would take me down to the specific bianri that my train would be departing from.
    All of which took around 10 minutes so if you’ll also want to use the elevators to access the high speed trains at Bologna Centrale, allow sufficient time.

Europe's most extraordinary train journey...

Firenze S.M.Novella station, the main city centre station in Florence is 92km from Bologna Centrale by the high speed line and I wouldn’t usually advocate paying €10 the rail pass reservation fee to travel this distance on a Frecce train.

But the Bologna to central Florence journey by train is an exception, because aside from one, not particularly conveniently timed, daily Intercity train, the high speed trains are the only option for a direct journey between Bologna Centrale and Firenze S.M.Novella stations.

If I hadn’t had a month’s worth of luggage with me I’d have opted to take the morning InterCity train from Bologna to Firenze Rifredi station and then connected there for a train on to S.M.Novella, particularly as the InterCity train is only around 25 mins slower than the high speed train.
That’s because the IC train travels on the original ‘direttissima’ railway constructed between Bologna and Florence, if the 1930s technology had enabled trains to travel over 250 km/h, it would have been the world’s first high speed line.

The contemporary journey by high speed (AV) train from Bologna to Florence is extraordinary, because in order to enable an arrival in S.M.Novella station less than 40mins after departure, the trains travel through a series of tunnels for virtually the entire trip.
There are blink and you’ll miss them short gaps, which prevent this route from claiming the world’s longest rail tunnel honour it otherwise would have had.
Bologna Central station is within the entrance to the first of these tunnels so for more than 85km, the journey is underground on a train travelling at more than 280 km/h.
I get very excited by this type of thing, but I suspect a more common reaction will be similar to that of my my mum when she accompanied me on a subsequent trip, her verdict was, "well, this is a bit boring".
So having something to read or watch with you is a good idea when taking a Frecce train between the north of Italy and Firenze.

The €10 rail pass reservation fee also begins to seem like value for money set against the €5billion cost of the route’s construction.

...with a lot of pros and a few cons...

That expenditure does seem a relatively high price to pay in order to save 16mins of journey time when taking a train between Bologna and Florence, but the provision of a dedicated high speed route has also enabled a massive expansion in capacity, because up to twelve trains per hour in each direction now race through the tunnels.
However, that high volume of trains can also be a problem, because when something out of the ordinary disrupts the service, multiple trains can quickly get jammed up.
The entire Italian north-south high speed route between Turin and Salerno is only double-tracked, one set of rails for trains heading south and the other heading north, so if one train encounters an issue, there is no easy way around for the trains stuck behind.
Often the only option is to divert trains on to the conventional tracks where there inevitably lose a lot of time.

Hence the Italian high speed trains on the north to south route are comparatively unpunctual.
On my recent 16 journeys by high speed Frecce and Italo trains, taken over the past five years, I’ve arrived at my destination more than 30 minutes late on five occasions.
On this particular day I was delayed by only 10 minutes, but that’s not a particularly unusual scenario when travelling to S.M.Novella station in Florence.

The high speed route between Torino and Salerno isn’t a dedicated ‘Shinkansen’ type of railway for its entire length, there are three gaps in Milan, Florence and Rome, where the trains have to weave between the sections of the high speed line, on busy conventional railway tracks.
Calling at the main stations in all three cities also requires a diversion of the direct route and all of them are also termini, where trains have to reverse direction between arrival and departure.

Countless millions of travellers over the years have been able to take advantage of the fact that Firenze S.M.Novella station has a fantastically convenient location, only a 10 min walk away from the Duomo (cathedral) in the heart of the city.
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But that location is a headache for the planners of Italy’s train services, because the railways in Florence are, for the time being, laid out as they were when they opened in the mid-19th century.
There are no flyovers or dive-unders to aid the progress of the high speed trains as they travel in and out of S.M.Novella station, so the high speed trains which call there, have to cross three sets of tracks used by other trains.
This inevitably causes delays which, is why it when travelling between northern Italy and the capital, it can be worth targeting the trains which travel non-stop between Bologna and Roma.

...but transformation awaits

Though a ‘solution’ to this conundrum is currently under construction because Florence is to gain a new purpose built high speed train station, Firenze Belfiore.
The positives will be:
(1) Fewer delays to all of the trains, helped by the fact that they’ll be more space for the local Regionale trains to travel around the city.
(2) The journey times on the north to south high speed route will come down, not only for trains calling in Florence, but also because the non-stop trains between Milan and Rome will also be 10 mins faster.

Though those benefits will be offset with two negatives:
(1) The Belfiore station will be further from the city centre than S.M.Novella and Florence doesn’t have a metro.
Trams will stop by the new station, but they travel no further into the city centre than in front of S.M.Novella station, and the exit from Belfiore will be a 10-12 min walk from the entrance to S.M.Novella.
(2) The Regionale trains which provide a swathe of useful connections to destinations which have few or no express trains, including Lucca, Perugia and Siena won’t be able to call at Belfiore station, there’s simply no room for them.
So making the connection between trains will ultimately require making that 10-12 min walk, or taking a two stop hop on a tram.

Though another potential positive is that the new Firenze Belfiore station will hopefully have a left-luggage office, which will take the pressure off the facilities at S.M.Novella, which is where I was heading.
Having stepped off the train from Bologna I made use of the somewhat hidden passage beneath the railway lines, which can be found midway along most of the platforms/binari in the station.
If you can negotiate short staircases, this passage way is a short-cut to the left-luggage office, because instead of being on the main concourse, it’s located to one side of S.M.Novella station, halfway along binario/platform 16.

Author

Simon Harper

I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.

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