Take your Tablets

A visit, on a grey day, to an industrial estate in a seemingly drab town in the north Milanese conurbation to sort out problems with a tablet, perhaps bought too hastily in the local “Penny Market” discount store (they don’t change things there after two weeks), may not at first seize one with ecstatic thoughts about the delights of living in the “Bel Paese” but the great thing about Italy is that things can often turn out rather pleasantly different than one’s original conjectures.

From Florence we took a Freccia Rossa train which rushed us to Milan in just one hour and forty minutes. That’s for a distance of around three hundred kilometres so the average speed is approaching 180 kilometres per hour…

The Apennine tract from Florence to Bologna covers 78.5 kilometres and runs almost entirely through tunnels to the length of 73.3 kilometres. Started in 1996 and completed just four years ago (2009), it’s the third railway line between Bologna and Florence.

The first was the “Porretana”, so-called because it runs through Porretta Terme. Officially opened by King Vittorio Emanuele II in 1864 it is still running and crosses the Apennines from Pistoia to Bologna. At the time it was considered a gargantuan engineering project with its forty-seven tunnels and thirty five bridges and viaducts at a total length of ninety nine kilometres. The most difficult part to build turned out to be that between Pracchia and Pistoia, where twenty-six kilometres had to be crossed in the space of an elevation drop of 550 meters. The work was undertaken under the plans and supervision of the (naturalised Italian) French engineer Jean Louis Protche, obviously without any of the mechanised construction aids we are used to today: the hero of that railway was surely the navvy

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the “Porretana” was considered too slow. Single-tracked and with severe gradients it rather impeded economic development and communications between the regions of Tuscany and Emilia –Romagna. A new project was, thus, initiated with construction works lasting from 1913 to 1934, somewhat slowed down by the First World War and subsequent economic and political crises. The centrepiece of this project, known as “la Direttissima”, is the “grande galleria dell’appennino”, 18.5 km long and which took eleven years to excavate. In the centre of the tunnel there is even a station (now no longer used) linked to hilltop villages.

The construction of this railway (as with so many others in Italy: we have only to think of the fatalities in the construction of the Lupaccina tunnel on our own Lucca to Aulla Line) was marred by deaths and endemic silicosis in its workers. However, when the “Direttissima” was finally inaugurated in 1934 it created a revolution in transport links between the two great cities of Florence and Bologna, as the “Porretana” had done seventy years previously.,

With the advent of high-speed-train technology even “la Direttissima” has become out-of-date except for local traffic – hence the Firenze-Bologna TAV (Treno Alta Velocità) project. We were thus now travelling on the third railway line to be built across the Apennines. It was not much of a sight-seeing experience because of the many tunnels (one would have to travel on the Porretana for Apennine landscape appreciation, perhaps on one of the steam train which still occasionally run on it) but it was certainly a great technological thrill.

As with that other TAV project, still under construction, the Turin-Lyon line, there have been considerable environmentalist protests since any excavation under mountains can clearly affect drainage patterns. I sympathise with environmentalists on many points but I do feel the future is with high-speed-train links in Europe as a way of reducing the complete absurdity of much-more-polluting air flights.

Airplane travel may be OK if one is travelling from Milan to Mongolia but is quite absurd if one is going from Florence to Paris. When I first visited Italy it was by train. In those days one could buy a ticket from London’s Victoria station to Sicily’s Catania central station. There was a train that travelled right across northern France through Lille and Strasbourg, entered Switzerland at Basle and continued through Italy from head to toe. Regrettably, this train has been discontinued for some time. It would, anyway, be deemed too slow by today’s high-speed travellers but it was great fun and one could meet an amazing variety of people. It was also cheaper then than air-travel!

I hope that senseless air flights from the UK to Italy will soon be a thing of the past on grounds of both environment and of cost and that everyone will again travel by rail (or car-on-rail): surely the only sensible way to journey across such a compact continent as Europe.

By the way, what about that visit to the industrial estate? Read the next exciting instalment of this blog to find out!


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