• Marc Johnson

La Dolce Vita by Rail…


[Near Radda in Chianti] – Probably the best way to really enjoy and appreciate the Tuscan countryside is on foot, trekking from one charming hill town to the next. Or you might ride a bicycle, but considering the very narrow, twisting roads here that could be hair raising. Most folks opt for a car or, for the very brave, a motorcycle. Any mode of transportation could work in the Italian countryside, but you first must get here and there is a good chance – unlike the United States – that you will arrive by rail.

Italy is many things: an agricultural and wine mecca and a center of history, culture, fashion and design. Italy is also a country hampered by a truly inefficient political system that produces a new prime minister about as often as Chianti produces a stellar vintage. Next to the Italian political process our own dysfunctional Congress looks like a well-oil machine. Most Americans would say we could teach the Italians something about the importance of hard work. The Italians might say Americans could learn something from them about la dolce vita – the sweet life.

Italians can also teach us something about trains.

In 2012 a new, private high speed rail operator began service to many of Italy’s largest cities. The sleek Chianti red trains operate on an open access system that provides the private rail company – NTV or Italo – with access to state-owned high speed corridors. I rode the very comfortable train this weekend from Rome’s sleek and stylish new Tiburtina train station to downtown Florence. Once we cleared the Rome suburbs we flew along at 250 km per hour (about a 155 miles per hour) on a trip that lasted hardly long enough – an hour and 20 minutes. You could drive from Rome to Florence if you were crazy enough and maybe – depending on traffic – make it in three or so hours. Flying seems unthinkable. Considering the speed, comfort, convenience and cost the train is really the only way to go.

While the rest of the world plunges ahead to make new investment in a new generation of high speed rail, back in the USA we can’t find a way to link even the most obvious destinations – San Francisco and Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Chicago and St. Louis, Atlanta and Charlotte. The mere mention of investment in high speed rail is likely to set off a Tea Party-like rant against wasteful government spending. Governors in Wisconsin and Florida put the hex on projects in those states and California – if ever there were a state that needed high speed rail it is California – continues to battle over costs and routes and the Los Angeles Times reports this week that more lawsuits around the initial $9 billion project are all but certain.

Meanwhile, China – no kidding – has floated the idea of constructing a high speed line from China to the United States that would include a tunnel beneath the Bering Strait. At first blush that seems like an outrageous idea, but the Chinese have invested billions and billions in their own fast train system and they have begun to corner the market, like many other markets, on high speed design, engineering and finance. New analysis in Australia, a country without high speed rail, says a system there would not only be heavily utilized, but would be good for the environment.

Britain, Japan, Spain and France are all moving steadily ahead to improve their rail systems – high speed and more conventional rail – while the United States, virtually alone in the world in this regard, continues to spend its often inadequate infrastructure dollars on more pavement. Opponents of rail often cite the “vast public subsidies” needed to build and maintain a modern rail system as their chief argument against making passenger rail transportation a national priority. It’s a silly argument since governments at every level spend lavishly on roads, bridges, freeways and airports. The U.S. air transportation system simply wouldn’t exist without the truly vast public investment made, usually with little controversy, in airports in any city of any size in the country.

I was in Winslow, Arizona a while back, a place that once was a stop on the route of the Super Chief, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad’s deluxe train that, as recently as the 1960’s, ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The railroad boasted that the Chief was a “deluxe hotel on wheels.” Now days one Amtrak train a day stops ever so briefly in Winslow. On a starry night I sat outside the grand old La Posada railroad hotel in Winslow watching the BNSF freight trains roll past and on into the night. An Australian visitor took a seat nearby and we shortly struck up a conversation about trains. With true wonder he finally posed the question that must seem incomprehensible to a visitor to the United States. “Why,” he asked, “did you Americans do away with virtually all of your passenger trains?”

Slightly embarrassed I could only shake my head. Why indeed.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson