On September 24 we met our friend and Christina’s colleague from work, Sheila James at the Fiumicino airport in Rome. Sheila was joining us for a week “a Firenze”. What a great week it was as Sheila proved to be a “viaggiatore” not a “turista”. My Italian friends make this distinction between those who arrive and want to see all the guidebook sites and those who want to dig into Italian life. Sheila led us to places we were not aware of, perfected some Italian, met and befriended the local merchants and discovered a direct train from Florence to the airport in Rome. Sheila knows about mass transit. Having grown up in NYC it is in her DNA and is her preferred mode of transportation. She reads timetables and understands connections. In fact she is a “mass transit celebrity” having been the subject of an August 21 Business Day feature in the New York Times, written by Conor Dougherty and Andrew Burton and entitled “Up at 2:15, At Work by 7”.
This New York Times spread complete with multiple fotos detailed Sheila’s time consuming commute from Stockton, California to work in downtown San Francisco. To be at work by 7 AM Sheila catches her first train in Stockton at 4:12 AM (Altamont Corridor Express) to arrive at a bus in Pleasanton for a 4:58 AM pickup that puts her on a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train leaving at 5:55 AM for Civic Center, San Francisco where she arrives at 6:50 AM, and walks to her office. This is a commute of 83 miles if by car and 62.8 miles as the crow flies. Sheila gets up in the morning at 2:15 AM so as to drink her coffee and ready herself peacefully for the commute. The article points out that many commuters are making this same trip or longer (5% commute 90 minutes or more) because of housing costs in the inner Bay Area where median home price in San Francisco is $1.2 million versus $260,100 in Stockton. Rents are similarly skewed. Sheila pays $1000 per month for a three-bedroom home in Stockton. In SF it would probably rent for $4000-$6000 per month!
What the article neglected to discuss, but what was painfully obvious to Sheila when she got to Italy, is the lack of a decent “rapid” transit system in California. When we took Sheila on the train from Rome to Florence on the Frecciarossa we arrived in one hour twenty minutes and traveled an average of 155 miles per hour. This is a driving distance of 174 miles. As our friends and family who travel the Northeast Corridor of the USA know the Amtrak Acela averages 63 miles per hour, making the Boston to NYC trip about a 3 and 1/2 hour ride.
Italy still has a public passenger rail system called Trenitalia owned by Le Ferrovie dello Stato. This system was founded in 1905 and consolidated Italian rail service that had historically been regionally based and reflected the city-states and regional “Ducati” that predated the unification of Italy in the 1860’s. Under fascism in the 20’s and 30’s there was a maniacal obsession with building a national train system and while workers paid the price in increased hours and reduced pay, it is true “Durante il facismo i treni arrivavano in orario”, the trains ran on time, and they continue to run on time. In 2006 with the liberalization of transportation services mandated by the European Union there was the formation of Italo, a private passenger company that provides only train service on the high-speed lines between major cities. Trenitalia provides all the regional services and competes with Italo on the high-speed lines. The workers of both services are represented by Italy’s three large labor federations. Train travel is not cheap but it is far more convenient than air in terms of waiting time and security hassles.
I decided it would be interesting to try to replicate Sheila’s commute in Italia and see what her travel time would be like using Italian trains. Stockton is a city of 300,000, 63 miles (101 Kilometers) as the crow flies from SF. I choose Bologna in the region of Emilia Romagna as a starting point for a commute to Firenze. Bologna is a city of 388,884 and is the seventh largest city in Italy. The distance from Bologna to Florence is 104 kilometers and is traveled crossing over the Apennine Mountains. If Sheila were to leave the train station in Central Bologna at 6:05 AM and travel to Firenze Santa Maria Novella she would arrive at 6:41 AM. With all due respect, Stockton is not Bologna, but the distances from point to point are comparable and the differences in ease of travel are extraordinary. It is important to point out that the trip is on the main artery of the high speed lines that enable a traveler to get from Naples to Torino in 5 hours and 25 minutes, a distance of 574 miles! Let’s hope we get high-speed rail in California so the 400 mile commute from LA to SF can become 4 hours in the comfort of a train rather than 6-8 hours on highways. And in Tuscany even commutes on regional lines are shorter at comparable distances, and do not necessitate 3 connections as the Stockton to SF commute does for Sheila.
The passenger train system of the USA is a disgrace. What’s more on most train lines outside the Northeast corridor freight traffic has priority over passenger travel, so one can wait for hours on a single track siding for a long “money train” carrying “precious” cargo to pass by. This was not always so, as there was at one time an extensive passenger system in the US with multiple providers of service. These systems and extensive urban metro systems in surprising places like Los Angeles fell victim to the power of the oil and automobile production lobbies.
Sheila is already ready for a return visit to Italia in 2018. She will probably speak Italian by then, and will spend her time discovering new facets of life in Tuscany. And of course she will ride the rails of Trenitalia and appreciate a modern passenger system. Viva Italia!