There are two main similarities between the Italian train system and the British train system (quite apart from the much greater pleasure a journey on an Italian train is able to give one when compared to much of British Rail – or whatever they call it now) and two main differences.
The two similarities are that the track gauge is identical (or almost – there’s a half-inch difference between the two which did cause a spot of trouble when the Channel tunnel was built) and that the trains in both countries travel on the left rather than on the right. After all, the British did invent both the standard rail track gauge, based on the diameter of a standard cartwheel and the direction of operation, which they still use for all vehicular traffic on their own roads. This similarity has caused accidents for idiots in Italy trying to negotiate a level crossing when the gates are down (if it’s a double track, that is).
The two differences are that Italians use rail-tracks to number their train arrivals and departures. “Binario Uno” mean track one – and not platform one, which classification the British use. I prefer the Italian system. It makes more sense.
After all there can only be one track but a platform could have two sides to it. (Shades of “Brief Encounter”?).
The other difference is that in the UK the platform is very much more raised than in Italy so that it’s rather easier to board a train. In Italy there is often a bit of mountaineering to be done to climb upon some trains since the platform is at a considerably lower level.
I thought of this last point when we escorted what Dickens would call “the aged parent” to Bagni di Lucca station the other day. There was no need to worry. The new style “swing” trains, which are rapidly taking over from old stock which should have been discarded years ago, have low-slung entry sliding doors (which must be operated by pressing a green button) and immediately give onto a large base area from which you can rise to a higher level only if you want to.
(Inauguration of new Swing Train)
I suppose everyone reading this post must realise that, as all good citizens, one must have a valid rail ticket before boarding a train and that this ticket must be validated before the start of the journey. At Bagni di Lucca that increasingly rare human species, the ticket issuer, has long been extinct and, instead, there is a state-of-the -art machine which issues tickets. It may be worth reaching the station at least a quarter of an hour before the train arrives as the machine is quite slow in operation and there may be a queue of people attempting to use it. It may be an even better idea to come to Bagni di Lucca station without even thinking of boarding a train just to do a test run on the machine, which has both language and payment options.
In theory it’s even possible to use this machine to buy a ticket to the coasts of Sicily or the wilds of Calabria but I’ve only tried it for tickets as far as Rome.
After buying the ticket it must be validated by placing it in a yellow stamping machine, otherwise dire punishments could await one.
I have to add that as a responsible citizen I’ve always bought my train ticket at Bagni di Lucca, even though I have found that ticket inspectors also seem to be an endangered species. But they can suddenly appear.
In an unfortunate incident which occurred to one of my friends the ticket machine at Bagni di Lucca was out of order (it can happen sometimes) and the passenger boarded the train without a valid ticket. A particularly officious ticket inspector was on board, asked to see my friend’s ticket and, when my friend (who is fluent in Italian) tried to explain that the ticket machine at Bagni was out of order, refused to believe his explanation and threatened a minimum fifty euro fine.
What could my friend have done? What I’ve done if the ticket machine is out of order, or if the validating stamper doesn’t work, is to go straight to an operative on the train and state my case. It’s always worked. It seems that now, however, it might be a good idea to take a photograph of an out-of-order ticket issuing machine just in case…
If one doesn’t know how to operate a ticket machine there are plenty of unofficial “helpers” around. When in Rome I tried to obtain a ticket for a somewhat circuitous route. A young man (not a railway employee) was there to assist me and get a valid ticket issued in time for me to catch my train. I felt the small tip I gave him was well worth it. He remained there waiting for the next befuddled passenger to ask for his assistance.
This is an example of unofficial “black work” in Italy which could land both the unofficial assistant and the confused user in trouble but it is certainly widespread. Another unofficial “black work”, this one literally, are the car-space indicators from regions south of the Mediterranean who will find a place for your car to be parked in the centre of (e.g. Pisa) often using the partly-used ticket of a previous occupier. At least (it is to be hoped) your car won’t be broken into or damaged while you’re away glorying in the sights of the city.
Since a significant majority of Italians have an official and an unofficial work a blind eye is usually cast on these practises and it would only be the most martinet of visitors to this country to report these cases to the “forze dell’ordine”.
I do hope, however, that the authorities see sense with my friend and that they will discard the threatened fine. I am glad to say that in our case the train guard was very courteous toward the “aged parent” – indeed the majority of Italian railway employees share the same attitude, thank goodness.