During a recent trip, my wife, Marina, and I took an eight-day train excursion around Northern Italy—mainly in Lombardy and the Veneto. Starting in Varese, the nearest station to Marina’s hometown of Arcisate, we traveled to Bergamo, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Venice, and Ravenna, before returning to Varese via Milan. Such a trip would be impossible in most parts of the US, but in Italy it is both practical and affordable to travel from almost any midsized city to any other by train. Tickets ranged from around €8 to €28 per person, depending on the distance traveled and the class of the train. This compared quite favorably to the cost of renting a car and paying for gas at around USD 8.50 per gallon, plus it eliminated concerns about parking or navigating on Italian streets and highways. We never made reservations—we simply went to the station in the city where we were staying, went to the ticket counter, and asked for the next train to the next city on our itinerary, bought our tickets, and went. (It helped that Marina is fluent in Italian, but I suspect any tourist could learn enough Italian to master the ticket buying process.) Typically, the wait for the next train was less than an hour, and it was never more than an hour and a half. Almost every train station includes a bar/café where one can sip an amaro or cappuccino and read while waiting. The trains are quite punctual in both their arrivals and departures. Some trains are slow locals that stop at every small town along the route, other are fast expresses that connect major cities, and the level of comfort varied considerably, though never beyond our limits of tolerance.
Passenger trains in Italy are operated by a government-owned corporation, Trenitalia, which, in turn, is controlled by a larger, state-owned holding company, Ferrovie dello Stato. This indicates that the Italian people, like most Western Europeans, are crushed under the heel of a repressive socialist state. We freedom-loving Americans, on the other hand, require a “market-based” solution to our transportation needs, and hence must drive almost anywhere we wish to go in our private cars. Those who can’t afford a car or the fuel to run it had best stay home. Of course we have a state-sponsored passenger rail service, Amtrak, but it is habitually underfunded and regularly threatened with complete abolition by congress.
As it happens, we have a government supported commuter rail line here in Northern New Mexico—the Railrunner—which runs from Santa Fe to Belen, south of Albuquerque. Although we travel from Santa Fe to Albuquerque weekly for music rehearsals, we cannot take the train, because the last northbound train leaves Albuquerque at 7:40PM—the schedule seems to have been devised for state workers who commute from Albuquerque to the capital in Santa Fe. And as far as getting anywhere outside the Rio Grande corridor between Santa Fe and Belen, forget it. I suppose one could connect at Albuquerque with the once daily Amtrak trains between Los Angeles and Chicago, but that’s it. For any other destination in the West, at least as far as rail travel is concerned, you can’t get there from here.