Engineering Rome

High Speed Rail in Italy


Major cities in Italy are never far out of reach with the strong network of high speed rails branched throughout the country. As countries grow, the demand for connecting centers of commerce has never been higher. Today, many careers require travel away from home, and it becomes more vital to have a mode of transportation fast, and reliable. Thankfully, this demand for mass public transportation has been answered through the efficient methods of high-speed rails. The infrastructure has evolved over the past century. By experimenting with new techniques and receiving lots of financial support, a rail system that used to be slow, and inconsistent has been replaced by something people can depend on. In addition, there is a competitive atmosphere within the industry between the public sector, and the private sector. Many have speculated this competition to be lopsided, but if all else, it has pushed the envelope for a higher quality experience amongst all passengers. It is also important to discuss a few geographical aspects of Italy that enable shorter travel times, and more direct railways. This article will provide you some insight on the development and continuing success of high-speed rail in Italy. It’ll also give rise to question regarding the rising modal split between trains, airplanes, and automobiles. Lastly, I’ll call upon my own experience from a passenger’s perspective in the hopes of encouraging others to partake in this engineering feat. Whether it be for its strategic north-south axis, or its surplus of big cities, Italy shows a promising future in the world of high-speed rail.

Fig. 1 – Trenitalia ETR 500 Frecciarossa (Wikipedia)

History of High Speed Rail in Italy

The first high speed route, the Direttissima, in Italy was introduced in 1977, connecting Rome with Florence (Wiki-HSR in Italy). The top speed on the line was 250 km/h (160 mph), giving a total travel time of roughly 90 minutes. Following this, the high-speed service was introduced on the Rome-Milan line in 1988-89 with the ETR 450 Pendolino train. This was the first Italian train to demonstrate the tilting mechanism to resist inertia around corners. The prototype, ETR 500-X, nicknamed “Remo,” as the brother of the first Roman king, reached a record speed of 319 km/h (198 mph) (Wiki – HSR in Italy).

The First High Speed Rail, Direttissima

The ferrovia direttissima Firenze-Roma, meaning “most direct Florence-Rome railway” was the first high-speed line opened in Europe when half of it was opened for operation in 1977. The remaining half was finished by 1992. This new high-speed line cut the travel time from Rome to Florence to an hour and 20 minutes. The previous railway was developed by serval different companies for different purposes, and as a result it was a curvy, slow travel between the two cities. It wasn’t until after World War II that the project began. The line contains the largest viaduct in Europe spanning over 5,000 meters long, and crossing over the Paglia River. The line is a largely straight path containing material from the old track integrated throughout (wiki-Direttissima).

Pendolino Train

The high-speed train, Pendolino, meaning “small pendulum” received its name due to its mechanism to tilt at bends (Railway Tech – Pendolino). Historically, high speed trains had to slow down when traversing curves in order to prevent passenger discomfort. This can be understood when considering inertia. Anyone who has sat in a car while whipping around a corner has felt his/her body lean one way while the car goes the other way. Now imagine sitting in a train that hits a corner going over a 100 mph. One practiced solution to this hazard is the installment of special tracks that can withstand such high speeds, however, this solution is expensive, and not as sustainable (CITE). The benefit of the Pendolino is that it can go around curves designed for slower trains without losing its speed. The mechanism consists of tilting the car bodies in the direction of the curve in order to reduce inertia of objects within the car (Wiki-tilting trains). Although this technology limits speeds up to 155 mph as opposed to 190 mph on standard high-speed trains, it allows a significantly faster travel on standard tracks.

Public Sector vs. Private Sector

There are two organizations that provide service for high-speed passenger trains. Trenitalia, owned by the Italian State Railway which is ultimately owned by the government, is the primary train operator in Italy. The other operator is Italo, a private organization developed by four businessmen, one being Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the former CEO of Ferrari. Together, they combined to transport 64 million passengers in 2015 (Wiki-HS train Italy).


The first one established was Trenitalia which came about in the year 2000. This is a government-owned operation that monitors the train transportation, and is partnered with the government-owned Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RFI) which monitors the infrastructure of the rail lines. Trenitalia is known to manage more than 9,000 trains, and to also transport over half a billion passengers per year (Trenitalia). In 2008, about 620 miles of new track were commenced on the Turin-Milan-Bologna-Rome-Naples-Salerno route that allow trains to reach speeds over 220 mph, although the existing railways can only withstand a maximum of 190 mph. Trenitalia has a large fleet of different high-speed trainsets including tilting and non-tilting trains. The newest trainset being implemented is the Frecciarossa 1000 which is a 200-m long eight car train with distributed traction technology (wiki-frecciarossa 1000).


In the opposite corner there is a newer company, NTV-Italo, which is recognized as the first private high-speed operator in the EU. NTV, or Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori, means New Passenger Transport in Italian. The world “Italo” is used as a branding for the trains in use. Following the liberalization of domestic passenger rail services in 2003, NTV established itself in 2006 in the hopes of improving the “quality and economics of rail transport.” [4]. NTV ridership for the whole year of 2012 was 2,051,702, but it steadily increased as the company grew. NTV managed 9.1 million passengers in 2015 with a load factor of 71.5% [5]. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a load factor measures “potential to actual performance.” The equation essentially divides the total number of seats filled by the total number of seats available within a train [6]. In addition, NTV is looking to expand its fleet by using tilting trains to open up more routes and destinations for travel (wiki-Italo).

Competition Fuels Innovation

Fig. 2 – Trenitalia train on the left, and Italo train on the right (The Washington Post)

In 2006, NTV-Italo’s entrance into the industry was bumpy, and the competition was coined unfair by some opinions [7]. Prior to the liberalization in 2003, Ferrovie dello Stato Italiane (Italian State Railways) controlled the industry of high speed rail. Once NTV-Italo began its endeavors, it was speculated that there was some misbehavior amongst the government-owned company. This was evident in an early incident when Ferrovie placed a 2-meter fence in front of Italo’s customer center overnight without notice. A Ferrovie subsidiary admitted responsibility, but deeming it necessary for safety. Only later was the fence converted into a gate and allowed access onto the Italo platforms. Many speculated that this type of misconduct was present since Italy opened up its train market without appointing a fully independent transit regulator [7]. Nonetheless, this imperfect competition generated an improvement in high speed rail services, in addition to lowering prices. Fortunately for Trenitalia, they spent years improving efficiency and operations in anticipation for the opening market. In fact, a 1991 survey shows that almost half of the trains on the main Milan-Rome route were delayed by more than 15 minutes. Today, 90% of Trenitalia trains arrive on time [7]. Although Italo has struggled to excel against Trenitalia, NTV president Antonello Perricone said “It is important for not only Italy, but for Europe, that we succeed in competing here” [7].

Safety on the Railway

Something to consider is the level of risk involved with high-speed trains. There are situations that can lead to serious tragedies if precautions are not taken. If a train collision were to happen, casualties are magnified due to the masses of people on passenger trains, and also at the high speeds that these trains travel at. Also, trains travel on fixed tracks, which makes them extremely susceptible to collisions. Unlike being in a car where you can swerve away from oncoming objects, trains have no capability to do so, and slowing down takes way longer due to the large amount of momentum of a high-speed train. With these risks in mind, train traffic signaling has become a major focus in not only the Italian high speed rail, but in the whole entire industry (wiki-rail signaling).

Timetable Operation

The simplest form of operation is to run the system according to a timetable. This implies that every train may only run on a track segment at a scheduled time, during which they have possession of the segment (wiki-railway signaling). According to Wikipedia, “When trains run in opposite directions on a single-track railroad, meeting points (meets) are scheduled, at which each train must wait for the other at a passing place. Neither train is permitted to move before the other has arrived” (wiki-railway signaling). The timetable incorporates enough time in the schedule in the event of an engine failure, or a similar incident. In the event of a failure, there should be sufficient time between trains for the crew to walk far enough to set warning flags, or flares to alert any other train heading in that direction (wiki-railway signaling).

Block Signaling

Trains cannot collide with one another if only one train occupies a section of a track at one time. Railway lines are therefore broken into sections referred to as blocks. In the early days of railways, officials would have to stand at the end of blocks and wait for trains to pass by. Using a stopwatch, an official would time how long it would take for another train to reach the block segment. If the time gap between consecutive trains was small enough, the official would signal the oncoming train to slow down in order to recover the safe spacing between two trains. It wasn’t until the 1830s when fixed mechanical signals began to replace hand signals. An official from a signal box would operate levers that adjusted the position of the mechanical signals. When a train entered a block, a signalman would protect that block by setting the signal into the “danger” position, and when an “all clear” message was received from the train leaving the block, the signalman would set the signal to the “clear” position (wiki-railway signaling). Eventually, automatic block signaling became the preferred method, because it required no manual operation. Instead, the use of electrical track circuits were able to detect whether or a not a train was occupying a block.

Fixed Block

The most common method of collision prevention in Rome is the usage of fixed blocks. These segments are “fixed” meaning that there is a set distance between two fixed points. These two fixed points often consist of selected train stations, or end at signals. The lengths of blocks vary, but are ultimately designed to maximize the frequency of trains on them. Lines that are less busy may have blocks many kilometers long, but blocks can be as short as a few hundred meters long for lines that are busy (wiki-railway signaling). Fixed blocks have served a purpose for over a 150 years, but there have been some inefficiencies associated with the system. The most notable inefficiency being the unnecessarily long headway (Ali-LinkedIn). For example, “A block may be 200m long but if the train is only 100m long then the space within the block is wasted. The signaling system considers the length of the train to be the same as the length of the block – if the block is 200m long, the train is considered to be 200m long” (Ali-LinkedIn). This is evident in the diagram below:

Fig 3. – Demonstration of how wasted space is formed using a fixed block method

In the first phase, the entirety of Train 9 has cleared Block 2, so it seems safe to assume that Block 2 will turn green for Train 8 to enter. However, since these blocks are fixed at a distance of 200m, the signal is assuming Train 9 to also be 200m when it is actually only 100m. Due to this misconception, Block 2 won’t become “green” until Train 9 has completely cleared all of Block 3 which is displayed in the diagram above. You can take away from this diagram that the headway, or wasted space, increases as the preceding train decreases in length. Another misconception to consider is that a fixed block distance is calculated based on a maximum speed one train may have while travelling through it. For example, if a 200m block was designed based off of a 60kph train, then a 40kph train would still be expected to maintain a 200m separation. This idea is flawed since a 40kph train can perform an emergency stopping distance shorter than 200m (Ali-LinkedIn).

Moving Block

Although Italy still relies heavily on fixed blocks, the idea of moving blocks is a technique worth investing in for the future of the industry. Due to the enhancement in communications-based train control (CBTC), the concept of moving blocks has proven versatile. The idea implies the incorporation of one contiguous track rather than a chain of small blocks (Ali-LinkedIn). The biggest advantage to arise from this technology is the fact that a safety distance is no longer static, yet an adjustable distance. For example, if a train is travelling at a higher speed, then the safety distance between itself and the train in front of it increases. And if a train is traveling at a lower speed, then the safety distance decreases. Consider the following diagram depicting this example:

Fig. 4 – Demonstration of the benefit of using a moving block

Looking at the diagram, notice how the speed of Train 8 directly impacts the safety distance in front of it. At 120km/h the safety distance is nearly twice as long as the safety distance at 60km/h. As the obstacle moves forward the safety distance moves along with it, and limits the separation to a bare minimum, guaranteeing no wasted space.

How Moving Blocks Work

According to Naeem Ali, a CBTC specialist, there are three main characteristics that contribute to the system.
1. The ability to locate the position of a train without the usage of track circuits. As seen in the image below, this can be done by using transponder tags.

Fig. 4 – Use of tag/beacons and tachometers to locate train position (smartailworld – Ali)

In addition to the use of tag/beacons along the railway, tachometers are also installed on the axles of a train to determine fine position. As the train crosses the second beacon, the train is aware that it is located 200m from the reference point. As the train moves away from the beacon, the tachometer will track how far away it has moved. In this example, the Train Bourne Unit is located 247.5m away from the reference point.

  1. 1. Once the train acquires its accurate location, it proceeds by relaying the information to a wayside unit via radio. In past years, inductive loops have been the method of transferring information, however, the development of radio technology has allowed it to become the standard for the rail industry.
  1. 2. The CBTC system also holds the responsibility of protecting trains from all types of failures. The system contains three types of functions it must perform in the event of a failure and they include: collision avoidance, over speed protection, and miscellaneous protection. Here are the basic definitions of each function:

Collision avoidance – the ability to keep trains separated from one another, and from other objects along the railway.

Over speed protection – the ability to track speed of trains and to control speed within a tight tolerance.

Miscellaneous protection – one of the functions that don’t fit within any generalized category.

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Construction of Railway

Constructing a railway is complex and requires a major devotion towards time and money. Consider the Florence-Bologna high-speed railway. This line, which is 78.5km long, consists of 73.8km of tunnels broken into 9 different segments (RFI-info brochure). In addition, there are 1.1km of bridges and viaducts, including the viaduct Sieve which spans 641m (RFI-info brochure). The journey time between the two cities, which was once 59 minutes, was cut down to 30 minutes. The construction which had started in 1999, didn’t completely finish until 2008, and having an original estimated cost of 1 billion euros had escalated to a total of 5.3 billion euros by the end (wiki-bologna-florence). Most big-scale construction projects tend to run over the estimated cost due to unforeseen circumstances, and considering a heavy portion of this project being tunnel boring, there can be a lot of situations to pop up.

Impacts of Construction

An unfortunate consequence to heavy civil construction is the demolition of natural lands, and the destroying of personal property. When dealing with routes than span over hundreds of kilometers, there’s bound to be obstructions that get in the way. You can try to divert these areas by going around them, or you can take a more direct path. Unfortunately, in public works such as these railways, the direct path is more likely going to be the prevailing approach. Even at a small scale, this infrastructure may rip through someone’s farmland, and completely deteriorating a family’s source of income.

Railway Technology

Railway Electrification System

High speed trains in Italy use a railway electrification system for power. Instead of relying on a locomotive for fuel supply, high-speed trains use electric multiple units to haul passengers (Wiki-railway electrification system). An electric multiple unit, or EMU, consists of self-propelled carriages, using electricity as the motive power.

Italy’s north-south axis

The success of Italy’s high speed rail system is accredited to a number of aspects, but one aspect that you may not consider is the geographical layout of the country. Italy’s shape lies heavily on a north-south axis ranging from the Alps down to the Mediterranean Sea. Within this axis lies a majority of Italy’s biggest cities: Naples, Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Milan. Having these cities approximately align can prove vital for a high speed railway. Railways that contain various curves can lead to inefficiency, and an increased risk for derailment [8]. This advantage becomes more evident when comparing the high-speed rail lines in Spain. As opposed to Italy, Spain’s roundish boundary prohibits a more sporadic placing of major-metropolitan areas. The three powerhouses of Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia form a C-shape which causes a serious inconvenience for high-speed railways.

Fig. 5A. Spain high-speed railway network.
Fig. 5B. Italy high-speed rail network.

My Personal Experience

I was fortunate enough to have been able to experience this technology firsthand as a passenger. My engineering group and I took a trip up to Venice, and we rode on the Frecciarossa train through Trenitalia. The total travel time was about 3 hours and 45 minutes one way. This was my first time riding on a high-speed rail before so I was really excited. Overall, I had a great experience and I wanted to share a few aspects that stood out to me the most. The first thing was the smoothness of the ride. I was quite impressed with how consistent the ride was especially at such high speeds. The second noticeable aspect was the frequency of tunnels throughout the line. There were a good portion of tunnels throughout the trip, and each one spanned a great distance as well.

Furthermore, I was surprised by the increase of pressure on my ears as we travelled through the tunnels. This occurrence encouraged me to pursue research regarding this concept. What I had discovered is that when a tunnel is traveling at high speeds in an open space, the train essentially pushes the air out of its path as it moves forward, but in a tunnel, when the train pushes the air away, it is restricted from the walls of the tunnel from dispersing left and right. A portion of the air is going to be pushed forward all the way until it reaches the end of the tunnel, but a good portion is going to be pushed against the walls and rushed along the tight gap between the wall and the train. Due to a loss in volume, the air particles have less space to move around in, therefore increasing the air pressure between those gaps, and ultimately causing an increase of pressure on our ears.

Also, we stopped at the Florence station along the way, and our train switched direction both times we were there. I was unaware of the occurrence until we started moving again, and had realized that I was facing the opposite direction of travel. My assumption for this is that after identifying the immediate turn from Florence to start heading towards Bologna, the method of positioning our train the opposite way must’ve been more efficient than continuing in the same direction we came into the station.

In addition to aspects of the train, I was also mesmerized by the scenery of Italy as we travelled by vineyards, farmlands, and small towns. After being in the chaos of Rome, it was pleasant to get away from the masses of people for a couple of hours, and to take in the calmness of a train ride. I would recommend the experience to anyone.

The advantages of an Electric Train

An encouraging concept to using high-speed trains for transportation is that they’re way more sustainable than diesel trains. According to Renato Casale, who presented an international practicum on implementing high-speed rail in the US, there are number of advantage to electric trains versus diesel trains (Casale, ppt). The first one he had mentioned was that an electric train has a greater power/locomotive weight ratio. Diesel trains carry very large engines which causes them to be extremely heavy where electric trains have no need for this additional weight. Assuming that there is a consistent power output between the two types of trains, an electric train will produce a larger ratio versus a diesel train. Another advantage Casale had provided is that electric trains produce less pollution.


In conclusion, the high-speed rail in Italy has enabled an efficient connection between metropolitan areas within the country. The industry serves a lot of benefits as opposed to airplane travel, or car travel. In addition, it has integrated many signals and techniques to guarantee the safety of passengers aboard. And above all else, it’s an experience that is truly unique to Italy alone. The high-speed rail movement is making its way all around the world, but there’s only one place where you can enjoy such a convenience while taking in the beautiful sights of Rome.


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