Mastering Train Travel in Italy: Part One

This is Part One of a three-part series on train travel in Italy. See the other two posts:

Part Two: Purchasing Your Ticket and Boarding
Part Three: Your Journey and Getting Off at the Right Stop

Understanding the Schedule

One of the first things we do when an Arts Sojourn group arrives in our base location in Italy is to visit the train station for an orientation session. I still remember how intimidating it all seemed when we took our first Italian train trip in 1994, but we have come to find that with just a bit of preparation even first-time travelers can move about the country’s train system easily and without fear. The Italian train system does have a few arcane and mysterious aspects, some of the fine points are even confusing to some Italians. The topic is too broad to cover thoroughly in a short blog post such as this, but in my next few entries I will try and offer some practical suggestions and provide links that may help build a bit of confidence for you adventurous travelers.

Here are a some of the instructions that I give in our orientation to help our clients navigate the system:

First, we need to understand the paper schedules that are posted in every station. These may look a bit overwhelming at first glance, but they are pretty easy to decipher. Notice that there are two paper schedules, one for arrivals and one for departures. Let’s assume that you want to take the train from the town you are in to another, so we will look at the departures first. The time posted (in military time) in the far left column of the Partenze schedule will tell you what time the train leaves, but first you need to know which train to get on. The column on the far right tells you the trains’ ultimate destination, but here’s the catch, the large bold type in the right column tells you only the end of the train’s journey, so unless you’re going all the way to the last stop you will have to look at the smaller print below or to the left of the main listing to be certain that the train will stop where you want it to. Every intermediate stop will be listed in smaller print along with the time that the train is expected to arrive there. If your desired destination is not on the list, then do not get on that train – this will not be the train for you! You may notice that instead of listing individual intermediate stops it may say ferma in tutte le stazioni – “it stops in all the stations.” This will mean that although the train will stop at every station on that line it will also take a long time to get there. If you are traveling for only a short distance this will likely not make much difference, but over longer distances it could add hours to your travel time.

The second column from the left contains the train’s number, which you will also see lit up on the front of the train as it approaches, and also a symbol that indicates what type (relative speed) of train it is. What is important to know about this is that if that train listing is printed in blue or red ink it is a fast train that costs more at the time of purchase than a standard ticket. You cannot simply board a fast train with a standard ticket. You need to specify at the time of purchase. If you are buying at a ticket window and have trouble being understood, simply write the information down and show it to the person in the booth. Conductors roam the trains and check to be certain that passengers are correctly ticketed. If you are incorrectly ticketed you will have to pay a supplement on board which can be stunningly expensive. Never take a chance on this!

The third column from the left shows various seating classes on the train. Many trains including all regional ones have only one seating class, so do not worry about a first class seat unless you are a traveling on a fast train for a long distance, or over a holiday, and even then it is generally not necessary to travel first class, but do not sit in a first class car without buying a first class ticket. The class (if any) is printed on the outside of each car. On regional trains this is not an issue.

You will also see a column that says “Binario,” which means “track.” The train that you want will generally arrive on the numbered track listed on the paper schedule. In smaller stations there may be only one track. In very large stations there may be dozens with multiple trains parked along each track, but each train will be parked in its own spot with a numbered position. Don’t panic, just look for the number. In many stations these days you will find electronic boards that announce arriving trains including what track they will be on. It is always a good idea to check these boards for the most up to date information. The larger stations like SMN in Florence will have extensive listings of all arriving and departing trains on very large electronic boards.

Another tip that I give to our clients is to also find and write down a number of return train options before you depart and never plan on taking the last train back home, unless you don’t mind an expensive cab ride or the cost of a hotel room somewhere if you miss that last train. You can research the return trains by simply looking at the other paper schedule for arrivals. It is the opposite process that you used for selecting your outbound train – for example, you may want to find a train that arrives back at your home station at 10 PM. You will find the times of arrival in the far left column. You will find the time that it leaves its point of origin under the main heading to the far right. Unless you are getting on the train at its point of origin you will need to check the intermediate stops it makes along the way in order to find out if, and at what time, the train stops at the destination you will be returning from. It’s really quite easy.

In my next post we will look at purchasing and validating your tickets, and a offer few more helpful tips on making certain that you board the correct train and do not miss your stop.

Buon Viaggio!

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