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Italian HSR Lessons

October 07, 2021
As Congress debates, Italian high-speed rail already shows what U.S. travelers could have

As the tug-of-war goes on in Congress over how much to allocate for rail infrastructure, more and more people around the world already have the benefits from this kind of investment.

Last week, thanks to the Italian Trade Agency, I had the chance to represent the High Speed Rail Alliance at Expo Ferroviaria: a trade show in Milan featuring more than a hundred companies that provide products and services for thriving rail systems like Italy’s. I want to share what I learned there with you:

Italy integrates rail well into its overall transportation network

This gives travelers access to a wide variety of convenient options.

For example, from the airport, you can travel by train to Milano Centrale Railway Station, where your travel options multiply. They include direct access to the city’s subway system, and connections to trains throughout the country, including frequent high-speed options.

Travelers to and from American cities could benefit from this kind of integration
Rome’s airport station is directly connected to the high-speed rail network.

Cars and buses crawling through busy traffic often give the only way in or out of so many American airports. Even American airports with trains often only offer local subway or light-rail service—and sometimes, even these trains can only be reached by first riding a shuttle.

We could make things easier and more efficient for travelers with direct connections at airports to high-speed rail systems.

For example, in a city like Chicago, we need to make CrossRail a reality. CrossRail would enable fast, frequent, affordable access by train between O’Hare Airport and the entire region—a multi-state region where 30 million people live near rail corridors that could provide access to and from O’Hare and the rest of Chicago in three hours or less.

High-speed rail makes new things possible for travelers

On the second day of the Expo, the Italian state railway (Ferrovie dello Stato, or FS) invited the 16 members of the international delegation to visit its network control room in Bologna, which monitors traffic on the country’s rail system.

Traveling aboard the high-speed Frecciarossa 1000, the trip of around 130 miles took just an hour. Leaving at 8:00 AM, this gave us nearly two hours to visit and meet in Bologna.

Then we made it back to Milan by noon sharp, and all along the way, we could work comfortably on the train while in transit.

Right now in the United States, we can’t do this by any means of transportation except pricey, luxury helicopter services. High-speed rail would make it possible, and affordable to nearly everyone.

This is me (Chris Ott) working on my journey aboard the high-speed Freciarossa 1000
When you start high-speed rail, it sells

The train I described above basically advertises itself.

It travels much of the way between Milan and Bologna alongside a highway, and we passed cars and trucks on the highway like they were standing still.

The only rail problem that I encountered during my visit were sold-out trains!

While airlines struggle, high-speed rail thrives

On October 15, 2021, Alitalia—Italy’s largest airline—will shut down. This follows years of financial struggles. By comparison, until the pandemic, the FS Italiane Group had a track record of more than a decade of annual profits.

Speaking of the pandemic, Italian railways take precautions seriously. During our trip to Bologna, railroad employees gave each traveler a small packet with a mask and hand sanitizer—along with a choice of coffee and other drinks.

You can see it for yourself

The company ItaliaRail has specialized since 2004 in rail-based travel in Italy.

ItaliaRail offers overall travel packages, as well as ticketing services through direct, real-time access to the Italian rail reservation system, for thousands of routes.

Investment in rail fosters competition

In the United States, we value competition—but lopsided infrastructure investment protects air and highway travel from competition by high-speed rail.

In Italy, by contrast, even the state railway’s high-speed offerings have competition from a privately owned, American-backed rival called Italo. You can learn more about it from this recording of a recent webinar about Italo, arranged by the High Speed Rail Alliance.

Investment in rail fosters innovation
I had a great time talking to people in Italy about the future of high-speed rail, including in the U.S.

In the U.S., we also value innovation. At the Italian rail expo, the sheer number of products and services on display surprised me: everything from engineering and design services, to rapid, automatic fire-suppression systems, to high-tech control systems that can be installed in different trains.

Italy has created a virtuous cycle in which competition and innovation offer better and better rail products and services.

Italian rail companies see emerging opportunities in the United States

Representatives from companies at Expo Ferroviaria wanted to talk. They expressed interest in developments in the United States, as well as the hope that the American market for rail will greatly expand.

The Alliance shares this hope! In fact, we work for it, every day.

One other thing struck me in conversations with representatives from all these Italian rail companies. Some did not seem to understand the need for a non-profit organization like the High Speed Rail Alliance to advocate for government investment in modern, efficient, integrated transportation networks with high-speed rail at the core.

That is our reality here in the United States, and—especially with the opportunities for our country to start taking major strides forward for high-speed rail—we hope you’ll join us in this effort!

 

Chris Ott is deputy director of the High Speed Rail Alliance.

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