Trains in Italy are a good way to travel around. They are mostly cheap and reasonably reliable, although some of the older trains are not hugely comfortable. Italy’s railway coverage is good, although in rural or mountainous areas you may need to catch a bus instead. An Italian website once quoted Italy Heaven and marvelled at our praise for their railways: they obviously hadn’t travelled in the UK. If you’re used to British railways you are likely to be impressed by the Italian version.
Travelling by rail is a way to see the country without hiring a car and braving the notorious Italian roads (twice as many fatal traffic accidents as the UK). If responsible travel is important to you, then rail travel is to be preferred in any case. It also means you are more a ‘part’ of things and you will have more contact with Italy and the Italians.
Train services in Italy are mostly run by the state company Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), who’ve branded themselves Trenitalia. There are also a few privately-run local lines. Prices are charged per mile, but – and this can be a confusing drawback – they vary according to what type of train you travel on. Fast long-distance services can cost twice as much as a slower regional service, even though the difference in time may not always be significant. It’s a good idea to research your journey details in advance and note different options and prices. Once you’ve bought your ticket you are restricted to the associated type of train, and if you catch another you will have to pay the difference in price as well as an additional charge of 8. In any case, especially for long journeys, we recommend making seat reservations for all except local services. Below we provide a run-down on the current categories of train, with information on reservations and seating. More advice on booking tickets and general rail travel tips can be found towards the foot of the page, along with some useful Italian vocabulary. All trains in Italy are now non-smoking.
Types of train
Eurostar trains (identified on timetables by ES*) are are the pride of the FS fleet, and not to be confused with the namesake which connects Paris and London. Fast, comfortable and businesslike, these modern express trains connect some of the larger Italian cities. Of course, they are also the most expensive way to travel, although special offers are sometimes available. Carriages are air-conditioned and open-plan. In the first-class section newspaper, drink and snack are provided in the mornings. Seat reservations are compulsory, and are automatically allocated when you buy your ticket. Details are printed on tickets, and all seats are numbered, though reservations aren’t displayed on board. If you book online you can travel without an actual paper ticket, using the ‘ticketless’ (just pronounce it with an Italian accent) system. You should print or note down your reference details, seat number and so on. The ticket inspector will check it on a handheld computer.
Intercity (IC) and Eurostar City (ES*City) trains trundle their way along the length of Italy, connecting the towns that Eurostar doesn’t reach, as well as offering a cheaper method of travelling between major destinations. They are slower and less comfortable than Eurostar but this is reflected in their prices. New modern Intercity Plus trains are comfortable and smart. Older Intercity trains are frequently divided into compartments seating 6 people, with a corridor alongside. They are shabbier and services like air-conditioning aren’t always that reliable. Seats are numbered and reservations are usually displayed on the window between the corridor and the compartment. There are first and second-class carriages first isn’t amazingly luxurious but it is more comfortable and usually much less crowded. Reservations are optional on Intercity trains, but are a still good idea especially on long journeys or between popular tourist destinations. It costs a little extra to reserve seats unless they are included in a special offer.
Treni regionali (R) are regional trains which connect smaller provincial destinations. Sometimes they provide a cheaper, slower option between major stations. Mostly they operate within a particular region; the trains of similar category and pricing which run longer routes are called diretti and interregionali. These types of train are cheap, but not as reliable or fast as the Intercity or Eurostar trains. Local trains only have second-class seating and don’t offer seat reservations. The type of rolling stock varies from rickety old trains to smart double-decker commuter services with electronic information displays.
Buying train tickets
As previously explained, tickets are priced per kilometre at a rate depending on the category of train. They are almost invariably sold as single tickets rather than returns; if you ask for a return you’ll receive a single ticket for each leg of your journey.
The most straightforward way to buy tickets is from the automatic machines in stations. The ones in Rome, and at most other major stations, are plentiful, efficient, multi-lingual, take credit cards as well as cash, and there is hardly ever a queue. Much better than waiting in a long line for a surly assistant behind a glass window.
It’s also possible to buy tickets online from the Trenitalia website (see links panel). This is usually a convenient and efficient way to book, although there are occasionally technical glitches, especially with log-ins. It’s worth a try, because when it does work, the system saves trouble, sometimes has online-only special offers, and for an increasing number of trains you can simply travel with your print-out. For other services, you can collect your ticket from an automatic machine in a major station.
At station news-stands and bars you can usually buy kilometre-tickets for varying distances up to 250km valid on ‘regional’ category trains for journeys within a region. It’s also possible to buy all kinds of rail ticket at travel agents in Italy – look for offices displaying the FS logo in their windows.
The Trenitalia website sometimes features excellent special offers. Recent examples have included two-for-one travel on Saturdays, and free travel in July for children. Sometimes these are only featured on the Italian-language pages, so look at these as well as the English translations. It is important to read up on the different tariffs available as sometimes you will find a variety of ways to save money, such as opting for less flexible advance tickets.
Many Italian station buildings date back to the Fascist era in the 1930s (when Mussolini famously ‘made the trains run on time’). There is usually an indoors waiting room, a tunnel connecting platforms, a ticket office, a station bar and frequently a news-stand. In small stations there will often be only one ticket desk, frequently closed. There may be a simple grey machine for regional train tickets, usually broken. If you haven’t been organised and equipped yourself in advance, you can usually buy tickets for regional train journeys of up to 250km at the bar or the news-stand. These are also the best places to enquire about local bus connections and tickets. Larger stations have toilets but may charge you for using them; smaller stations have toilets but they may be locked up. Most major stations now have a number of large ticket machines of which many local people and travellers are still wary. Consequently they are usually in less demand than the ticket office and you can get your ticket much more quickly. Stations in Italy’s principal cities usually have a left-luggage office (deposito bagagli): I’ve used those at Florence, Rome, Venice, Reggio di Calabria and Pisa stations.
Catching a train
You must always validate your ticket by stamping it in the yellow machines provided on platforms and station concourses. Inspectors can be very hard on anyone travelling without valid tickets, and they don’t always take pity on bewildered tourists. If you absolutely can’t find a machine that works, or a member of staff who can help, try writing the date, time and location on the ticket yourself. This will at least show your good intentions. The large ticket machines have a slot where you can validate your ticket as soon as you collect it.
Departures and arrivals are often given equal priority on display boards: partenze means departures and arrivi means arrivals. As well as their final destination, trains are identified by a number – if you check this on your ticket it will help you to identify your train. Binario means platform. Usually trains have a regular platform which is listed on the timetables displayed at stations. But this may change so check display boards and listen for announcements (sometimes these are made in English, but if not, listen out for the word binario, learn a few Italian numbers, watch the behaviour of fellow passengers – do they all abandon the platform and dash to another? – or ask for assistance if you’re not sure).
Extra tips: general advice on rail travel
* Most trains are air-conditioned (note that Italians don’t like windows being opened leading to dreaded draughts). Blinds are generally provided, and can be pulled down to keep out the hot sun – you might not see the view but you’ll be much more comfortable.
* Train toilets are usually (not always) quite decent and well-stocked with FS-branded toilet tissue, although long journeys take their toll.
* If you want to be standing on the correct section of platform, have a look around for a plan of train layouts. Sometimes these are displayed on the platform and they’ll indicate the formation of regular trains so you can work out where your carriage will stop.
* Don’t be afraid to ask passengers to move if they’re sitting in your seats. Be confident, brandish your reservation details and wait with a friendly but firm air for them to move. Prenotato means ‘booked’.
* Travellers, especially on long routes, are usually keen to chat. In compartments it’s normal to greet your fellow passengers on arrival/departure, or at least acknowledge their presence.
* The telephone number for rail travel enquiries is 892021 from within Italy. From overseas call 0039 06 68475475; there are English-speaking operators who are very helpful.
* Booking online, on station machines, or over the phone is efficient and much more convenient than queueing at ticket desks. You can change reservations over the phone, subject to seat availability.
* Be wary of beggars, peddlars and thieves who – very occasionally – work their way down crowded trains. Some times of day and route can be very crowded – e.g. school-teenagers thronging home just after 1pm on local services.
* When the difference in price isn’t great (for example, some Intercity routes) it can be worth paying extra to travel in first class – especially if you have large luggage or no seat reservations. You should have much more space and avoid the hurly burly.
* If your train is delayed you may be entitled to a partial refund. Ask for a form to fill in at the station. I did this once, and 8 months later a cheque from Ferrovie dello Stato arrived at my UK address.
* I have never seen trainspotters in Italy, and had to explain the concept to Italian friends.
treno – train
capotreno train conductor
partenze – departures
arrivi – arrivals
binario – platform
biglietto – ticket (plural: biglietti)
biglietto di andata – single
andata e ritorno – return