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A History of Italian Railways

Stuart Jordan

STUART JORDAN looks at the development of railways in Italy.

Italy was not yet a unified country when railways were first built in the kingdoms and province that made up the peninsula and islands in the Mediterranean Sea. As with many places, the railway held appeal because of its Industrial and military uses.

The first Italian line was between Naples and Portici in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which opened October 3rd, 1839. This was quickly followed by the first part of the Milano-Monza Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia - a vassal of Austria - which was completed in 1842. This line included a bridge which spanned the lagoon of Venice.

In 1844 the Kingdom of Sardinia connected Turin and Genoa, and included links with railways in France, Switzerland, and Lombardy-Venetia. The Ansaldo Locomotive Factory was built in Genoa in attempt to break the UK monopoly on locomotive manufacturing. Around this time, lines in Tuscany, Parma, and Rome were also built. The new railways were used to great effect during the Wars of Italian Independence for troop movement.

Italian Railways

The rail lines in 1861 (left), compared to the lines built by 1870 (right).

2000km of railway was laid by the time the country was unified in 1861, but not all of it connected. Attempts were made in 1865 to create a more useful network, and development of the railways were passed to five concessions. By 1872 the length of laid track had risen to 7000km.

In 1875 the government attempted to form one amalgamated railway company, but it failed, and the government fell, despite this practice being prevalent in the rest of Europe. The current regime of five concessions was performed poorly economically. In 1884 the Italian parliament issued a study into the railways, which recommended that the remaining three companies which weren't under state control should remain as private companies. The situation did not improve, with the losses on loss-making lines exceeding the profits of lines doing well.

Italian Railways

In 1905 the government bit the bullet and nationalised the railways. Ferrovie dello Stato (State Railways) or FFSS was created, with Riccardo Bianchi as General Director. Bianchi, who had earned an engineering degree in Turin and had worked in the railway workshops in Bologna, had also worked in England as a university scholar. He inherited a railway network which was a mess of aging rolling stock and a mis-match of regulations and standards.

Bianchi set about modernising the FFSS, introducing new stock, signalling and switching, and expanded electrification. The greatest period of modernisation was during the Fascist era, which ran from when they took power in 1922. More direct routes were built between Rome and Naples, and Bologna and Florence. Technical improvements saw 3000v DC replace the previous three-phase system, and light signals and automatic block control in place of semaphore signals.

Italian Railways

'Gottardo' TEE service, which linked Zurich in Switzerland with Milan.

The Second World War left the Italian railway network broken and divided, as much of Italy had seen fighting during the Allied invasion in 1943. The US Marshall Plan funding meant that most of the network had been rebuilt by 1952. Steam locomotion was phased out, replaced by diesel and electric locomotives. Italy was connected to the rest of Europe by the Trans Europ Express.

Italian Railways

In the 1960s and 70s high speed lines were developed and built, and there was another push to modernise rolling stock. Despite these efforts, some stock was beginning to be a bit long in the tooth, and service and punctuality was terrible. In an era where railways were losing ground in both passenger numbers and freight traffic, it was not the time to be offering poor service. Service improved in the 1990s, when the high-speed lines finally reached their full effectiveness and economic cuts saw the workforce reduced by half. In 1999 the company was privatised with the main shareholder still the Italian government.

Modelling Italian Railways

Piko Italian Steam Locomotive

Many model railway manufacturers produce Italian items, including Piko, Fleischmann, Roco, Rivarossi, Trix/Minitrix, Electrotren, and Arnold. There is a range of different scales, and you can include international and national TEE trains as well!

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