A nation that brings its style to the track

High-speed pendolini and air-conditioned carriages have swept away the enduring 1930s image of Italy's rail network. Andrew Gumbel on a post-war revolution
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The Independent Online
Travelling by train in Italy conjures up strong images: the awkward intimacy of six-seater compartments in the summer heat, and the murmur of human flotsam milling about in the corridors outside; the gusts of cool air puffing into the carriage beneath the lowered blinds; the half- glimpsed views of romantic mountain landscapes and dramatic coastlines; the tang of perfume and sweat mingled with the natural smells of lavender and pine wafting in from outside; the hesitant stabs at conversation between black-clad grandmothers, travelling salesmen, young conscripts and foreign tourists; the exchange of glossy magazines; the smiling offers of extra sandwiches from scrupulously packed picnic hampers; the periodic interruptions of raffishly uniformed guards asking for tickets or announcing the next station.

Such are the images that have inspired countless travelogues, novels and films, from the high-minded philosophising of modern Italian literature to the pop sex fantasies of Erica Jong The central place that railways enjoy in popular Italian mythology is not hard to explain: in a peninsula so varied in both culture and geography, the vast, spidery network connecting big cities, provincial backwaters and remote mountain villages has quite literally been responsible for holding the country together.

When Italy first embarked on unification in 1860, there were no more than 60 km of track in the whole of the south. In the next 50 years, the railways were to provide vital employment to the impoverished populations of Sicily and Calabria as the national network expanded its capacity eight times over. In the 20th century, Mussolini understood the importance of railways in creating a strong national identity, building a fleet of carriages that would look and feel the same in both Parma and Palermo, and dotting the country with near-identical stations built in the trademark Fascist style. (Whether he really made the trains run on time is another matter, however.)

Running down the country like a spinal cord is the main line running from Milan, through Bologna and Florence to Rome, and thence to Naples, Calabria and Sicily. It is the quintessential Italian train journey, one travelled by countless migrant workers in the post-war period as they first headed north in search of work, then returned for the holidays to see mamma and the bloom of orange blossom under the Mediterranean sun. It is a route that has changed dramatically over the decades, reflecting much of the progress and regional diversity experienced by Italy itself.

In Elio Vittorini's famous novel Conversation in Sicily, set in the 1930s, the Sicilian narrator jumps on a train back home after seeing an advertisement in Milan station that reads: "Visit Sicily! Fifty per cent off from December to June, just 250 lire return to Siracusa, third class." He then embarks on a tortuous odyssey, changing trains in Florence (six hours down the line) and Rome (another six hours), taking a ferry across the Straits of Messina and ending up on the snail-like single-track line down the east coast of Sicily. The seats are all wooden, and there is no sign of a dining car; instead, the assorted characters in his carriage nibble on oranges and pieces of bread and cheese.

These days the journey is certainly more comfortable, and much faster: third class went out with the Ark, there is air conditioning on most mainline trains, and the Milan-Rome leg takes just five hours by regular express instead of 12. Even if 250 lire won't get you very far, the prices are still very low, thanks to government subsidies that remain generous even in the market-driven 1990s.

What is most striking now is the sheer diversity of the trip. From Milan to Rome, the country's number one commuter route for business executives, one can now take the pendolino, Italy's answer to the TGV, which dispenses with the charm of the old railways in the unblinkered interests of speed.

Yuppies sit in open-plan carriages, first class only, talking to virtually everyone they know by mobile phone, but studiously ignoring their fellow passengers. The pendolino even has its own special track beyond Florence, which accelerates the Tuscan countryside into a blur of fields and cypress trees and reduces the Mercedes on the adjacent motorway to crawling boxcars.

Beyond Rome, it is a different world. The trains may have been updated from the quaint old models with etchings of Italian tourist sites in each carriage, but they are unmistakably shabbier, and slower. The network does not have enough new second-class carriages with air conditioning to go round, so on many southern lines old first-class carriages with fraying carpets and rusting window-frames have been requisitioned. The big figure 1 on the side of each carriage remains, only half-covered by a slip of paper with "2nd class" scribbled on in pen and notarised with an official railway company stamp.

In its progress past the Bay of Naples down the rugged Calabrian coast, the train chugs past places with what Vittorini described as "the names of ancient dreams" - the Phlegreian Fields, Vesuvius, Paestum and Scilla - which in reality are mostly half-finished developments in cheap concrete, the result of half a century of corrupt property speculation in one of Europe's biggest economic basket cases, the Mezzogiorno.

At Villa San Giovanni, on the toe of the Italian boot, the train disengages from the tracks and climbs onto the back of a special ferry to take it across the thin strip of water separating the mainland from Messina in Sicily. It is a laborious process, taking an hour-and-a-half, and a bitter reminder to regular travellers of the bureaucratic hesitations that have prevented the building of a much-promised bridge across the Strait.

In Sicily, the pace slows to a crawl. Endless development funds have built motorways and airports for this shimmeringly beautiful but troubled island, leaving nothing to update a paltry railway network that has remained virtually unchanged since the war. The 230 kilometres from Messina to Palermo take three-and-a-half hours, the 180 from Messina to Siracusa only half an hour less.

There is rarely a dining car, just a trolley-man offering his wares: "Birra, panini, acqua!" Not entirely unlike the 1930s, the passengers munch on bread and oranges and curse their fate as Sicilians, "always hoping", as Vittorini wrote, "for something better, but always despairing that they can ever have it".