Italy’s High Speed Rail Helped Prove Trains Can Be Better Than Planes

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An Italian high speed train

Italian high speed rail has proven popular in recent years
Photo: Bombardier

I used to like flying. I loved people watching in the airport, enjoyed the buzz of every walk of life passing through the same space, and found small comfort gazing out the window as clouds rushed past.

But then one day, the faff of it all got too much, and every flight became a chore. It seems that travelers in Italy have had the same thought, as high-speed rail in the country is threatening its domestic airlines.

In Europe, high-speed rail networks criss-cross the continent and offer an alternative for many domestic travelers looking to cut down their air miles. Now, a report from CNN found that modernized rail routes in Italy have contributed to the downfall of flag-carrying airline Alitalia.

Italy’s state operated Trenitalia runs a high-speed network that can reach up to 224 mph. The network traverses the north of the country and travels south along the Italian peninsula.

Onboard one of its trains, a journey from Naples to Milan covers 480 miles and takes around four hours. By contrast, a flight will take an hour and a half, but comes with the added tasks of check in, bag drop, and a need to arrive at the airport an hour and a half earlier.

With train travel, all these added stresses are removed. You just rock up to the station, find your seat and watch as the miles roll by.

The seamless four-hour journey means business travelers can have an uninterrupted day at work, families can avoid the drama of passport control, and wide-eyed sightseers can watch the country’s scenery roll by.

It’s no wonder, then, that passenger numbers on Italy’s high-speed trains reached 40 million in 2018, up from 6.5 million just 10 years earlier.

An Amtrak train passes through a forrest in Fall

Amtrak recorded a 6.8% increase in riders between 2010 and 2018
Image: Amtrak

“But”, you cry, “America is so much bigger than Italy. Your bohemian vision of everyone using high-speed rail will never happen here!”

That may be the case for long distance, cross-country travel, but the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that US operator Amtrak carried more than three times as many riders between Washington, DC, and New York City as flew the same journey on all commercial airlines combined.

According to the train company, its heaviest ridership is between Boston and Washington DC. But covering this whole stretch is still a six-hour train journey that covers roughly 440 miles — making it almost two-hours slower than a similarly sized journey in Italy.

This lack of advancement in the speed of rail journeys could explain its stagnating traveler numbers. Where Italy has seen a boom, the number of rail journeys in the US grew just 6.8 percent between 2010 and 2018 to reach 4.8 billion.

In contrast, the number of passengers boarding domestic flights in the US rose by 28% during the same period, from 644 million to 824 million.

A jetBlue aircraft takes off

Domestic flight numbers grew 28% to 2018
Photo: JetBlue

Clearly, then, there’s still work to be done if we want more people to experience the joys of rail travel.

But while journey figures are not growing quickly, those that do take the train are a dedicated bunch. According to a survey of Amtrak riders in 2019, almost nine in 10 riders were satisfied with their rail journeys. However, just seven out of ten flight passengers were satisfied with their trips.

With satisfaction in the railways high here, is an acceleration of our locomotives all that’s needed to increase rider numbers?

While investment in improved airports and roads remains rife in the US, a forgotten rail network has left train riders stuck onboard comparatively slower locomotives.

As we look towards a more environmentally-conscious future, a switch to railways seems inevitable for many journeys. And, Italy’s model proves that people are willing to make the change.

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