The Trenitalia train-ferry linking the Italian mainland with Sicily via Villa San Giovani and Messina is under threat from cheap airline competition.
Travelling by train within the UK is limited by distance and the longest journey without changing trains is the weekday Aberdeen to Penzance service which takes 13 hours and 22 minutes (one minute longer on Saturdays!). This may alter in two years with longer reaching European services from St. Pancras via Germany and Holland.
For obvious reasons, far longer rides without changing trains are possible on mainland European trains but perhaps the most interesting one is under threat. In Italy, Trenitalia run through services to and from Sicily via the train-ferry linking Villa San Giovani on the mainland and Messina in Sicily.
This crosses the narrow Straits of Messina and the ferry ride is only a couple of miles carrying several trains a day providing a direct link with Palermo and Catania with the Italian mainland. These are also the main airports in Sicily and cheap flights there have threatened the direct train services and the continued operation of the train-ferry is now being reviewed.
The author has been asked several times to say what his favourite rail journey is and this is a difficult choice to make. But, the journey by sleeper or the day train through Italy to Sicily is up with the best. With your own compartment, you can have over 20 hours to enjoy the changing scenery heading south.
The Sleeping car attendant was smart and attentive and had his own well equipped compartment. He was highly efficient, friendly and service based and the 1st class 2-berth sleeper, which seemed at first to be a cramped ill-equipped set-up with an upper and lower berth. But as the cabin was explored it turned out to be well appointed and well provisioned with water, towels and information booklets etc.
There is a day train Rome to Sicily, formed on our journey from the equivalent of 1980s Mk 2 intercity stock but in grey livery. This gave good views of ancient Roman buildings and viaducts along the lineside and also goes through Naples and Pompei. The views of the coast are simply breathtaking and seemingly never ending!
There has been much talk of a bridge linking Sicily with Italy but the jobs sustained by the short sea crossing means that the loss of these jobs with a bridge would be a huge Sicilian political issue. But it seems that the cheap flights to Palermo and Catania will end up killing the direct train services to and from the Island.
The ferry and rail crews were very happy for the shunting operation to be photographed, and for anyone interested in railways is fascinating. The train descends down a steep line on the mainland side through the docks and onto the ferry.
The train is split into three portions and shunted onto the tracks on the ferry. There are a set of buffers on the ship’s bow doors and the carriages are chained to the deck with an electricity shore supply plugged in to the ship’s supply. Some passengers remain on the train for the short crossing but others grab the chance for a coffee and a smoke!
Due to limited space, the linkspan has a complex array of tracks used for accessing different lines on the ferry and the dock lines. This is raised or lowered according to the tide at the time the trains roll onto or of the ferry and carriages are shunted on and off by a diesel shunter attached to an electric locomotive.
The train is split on the ferry by destination, for example the Palermo portion and Siracuse portion are shunted separately from the ferry. The latter is usually in two sections while just one is needed for the shorter latter train.
As the line is not electrified onto the linkspan, the diesel shunter is used for the first few metres between the limit of electrification and the ferry and then taken off the train. While this shunting is being carried out, there is ample time to watch proceedings from the deck or carriages and if you can make the visit, it is highly recommended! But go by train and not by plane, you won’t regret it!
Charles Dickens wrote in his 1850s weekly Household Words publication. “No hurry ladies and gentlemen, going from London to Paris in 11 hours is so well done that there really is no hurry“. Today, this no longer holds true and most travelers want to travel as fast as possible.
So 200 years after his birth, what he wrote still holds good and speed now threatens this trainferry operation!
If you get the chance try it out, by rail from Milan or Rome.