Independent Rail Travel in Italy: Fun and Frustration

L’articolo descrive il sistema dei treni. In italia, i treni sono un mezzo di trasporto molto utile e comune. L’autrice spiega la differenza fra i tipi di treni e le agenzie diverse. Lei spiega anche dove si possono comprare i biglietti: alla stazione di persona oppure online. Lei descrive il significato della parola “sciopero” ed i disturbi e la noia che gli scioperi portano ai passaggeri. Quando i turisti usano i treni per viaggiare fuori dal Paese, è importante sapere i nomi delle città europee in italiano. È anche importante fare delle domande quando non sei sicuro di qualcosa, ad esempio il numero del binario.

Train journeys in foreign countries are always a challenge, especially when English is not widely spoken. It has taken me quite a few years to master the complexities of rail travel in Italy: here you have the full benefit of my trials and errors. It can be frustrating, confusing, amusing or even annoying, but traveling by train in Italy is never dull!

Long Distance Trains

There are two companies which use the same tracks, and which are equally good in terms of price, speed (180mph) and punctuality. The Freccia trains (Red, Silver and White Arrows) are run by the State whereas Italo is a private company. I recommend using the ItaliaRail website if you are booking from outside Italy. You need to reserve a seat, and if you are lucky you may find one of the handful of bargain prices on offer at the beginning of each month. A cheaper but slower option for long distance travel is the intercity train, but you still need a reservation. 

Italian Names for Cities

Probably everyone knows that Italians call Florence Firenze, or Venice Venezia, but there are others too. I once missed several trains from Milan because I had no idea that Italians call Paris Parigi. There is also Napoli (Naples), Nizza (Nice), Francoforte (Frankfurt), and even Monaco (Munich). Plenty of opportunities for confusion there!

Local Travel by Train

Local trains are prefixed on the departure board by an R (regionale) or RV (regionale veloce). They have frequent stops, although the faster RV trains stop only at key stations. Sometimes they are delayed because the Freccia trains have priority on the shared track, and if they are running late, so are all the other trains.


Timetables are displayed at every station, yellow for departures and white for arrivals. But beware of asterisks! You may find that the train you want does not run on Sundays, or you may not take a bike on certain trains, or it only stops at your station on alternate days. It is far better to check on the TrenItalia website which is much clearer. 

Buying Tickets on the Day

You are likely to have to use a ticket machine, although there are actual human beings who sell tickets in mainline stations, but the queues are usually long. Begin by touching the Union Jack flag on the screen if you want instructions in English, but this is not English as we know it. The accent is impenetrable and the phrases bizarre, but with a little imagination you will understand. The English transaction always begins with a warning: “Bee ware of peek pockets.” This is loud enough for all the passengers round about to be instantly alerted to the fact that you are foreign and could be easy prey, the very thing they are warning against!

The machine will assume that you are traveling from that station on that date, although both can be changed. But there is a new rule which is that all tickets can only be used on the date specified on the ticket. If you have an unused ticket, you cannot use it on another day.

Annul your Ticket

This is something we are not used to doing, but it is essential to push your ticket into the slot on the little machine on every platform to stamp it. If this is not done, you risk a fine.

Boarding the Train

Now that you have found your platform (binario), the fun begins. It must never have occurred to those who devise Italian station announcements that passengers need to know first and foremost the destination as a way of identifying their train. Not so in Italy. You are always told first where it has come from (…”provinente da…”) preceded by a train number which means nothing unless you are a train spotter, and they probably do not exist in Italy anyway, because anoraks are not stylish enough. Finally, just when the poor tourist has given up hope of hearing the desired destination, it will be announced, along with the time it is due, and often followed by how many minutes late it is.

But do not get over-confident. Listen for the dreaded word “invece” (pronounced ‘invetchay’). This means instead of and will be informing you of a change of platform. Listen carefully, (it will not be translated into English) or follow the others but do not hang about. There are no concessions made about last minute platform changes or the fact that many people will have lots of luggage. You need to run. 

Rail Strikes

Another word you need to be able to recognise is "sciopero" (pronounced ‘shopero’) which means strike. They do not always give much warning, and it always causes chaos. I was once in Venice wondering if the Departures Board was broken because it was completely blank, when I heard the dreaded word sciopero. I was wondering how I was going to get back to my village and asked a uniformed man for information. “No, signora, I can’t help you,” was the stern reply. “The whole point of a strike is to inconvenience people.” There’s usually a ‘skeleton service’ when this happens but do not count on it.

The Positives

I hope all this has not put anyone off rail travel in Italy. I have focused on the downside, but there are positives too. Rail travel is state subsidised, so it is very cheap. The network covers areas which would be considered uneconomic in other countries, but it makes traveling around cheap and easy (with, of course the hazards outlined above).

Some local trains are double deckers. This means panoramic views for passengers: the Italian lakes or through Tuscany and Umbria are particularly recommended for scenery.

People are friendly and helpful. If you need help finding your train, they will escort you to the right platform. I was once taken pity on by some workmen on a train which was extremely late after a strike. They thought I must be hungry and shared their picnic with me. We feasted on salami, cheese and wine as we whizzed past glorious hills and vineyards.

I have a friend who is a ticket inspector, and a member of my English conversation group. It is a recognizable fact that any Italian given a peaked cap will automatically assume an air of stern authority. Luckily, if I am ever on his train, he is happy to take his cap off, sit down and have a chat. We exchange local gossip and further inspection of tickets is forgotten. 

Do take into account recent changes. It is expected that passengers will wear face coverings and sit only on window seats on trains. The trains are well sanitized, and on each coach there is now a one-way system with an exit door at the opposite end from the entrance.

Buon viaggio!