So – after two nights in Zurich (it was supposed to be one but that’s a private story) – we headed Due South…. Now that’s a great TV series. It would be so easy to go off at a tangent and discuss the merits of a Canadian Mountie and his Wolf on our screens but perhaps I should leave that for another day.
It was an early departure from Zurich on a Cisalpina express train made up of an ETR470 multiple unit. Walking down the side of the train I explained to our Son the significance of the hydraulic damping mechanisms on the side – this was to be his first ride on a tilting train. The technology was first engineered in the UK and put into service trial by the then British Railways as the Advanced Passenger Train (APT). Unfortunately demonstration runs for the press resulted in too many drunken hacks feeling ill and they gave it such a roasting that the political will to complete the project was lost – another victory for the lions of Fleet Street in their war against British jobs. The technology was sold to Italy and resulted in the highly successful Pendolino trains – subsequently bought by Virgin Rail for the West Coast mainline (buying back our own technology!). However, all is not well with the ETR470’s. They suffer from passengers (not drunken Fleet Street Hacks but ordinary Joe Public) becoming sick due to their motion. They also have a record of in service failures and blocked toilets (which could certainly make people sick). Our journey from Zurich to Milano included a blocked toilet – not a problem for me with my hollow legs but not nice for my good lady who had to wander a bit further down the train to find a safe haven. None of us found the motion unpleasant – in fact the train rarely exceeded a moderate speed and I doubt that the tilting mechanism bought much in the way of time savings.
So, having had a gripe… what about the journey? The route over the Gotthard Pass is a beautiful one. The railway was here long before the modern motorway and uses less spectacular means of passage. There are few sweeping viaducts but at times the railway seems to defy gravity as it clings to the side of a mountain with views down into the bottom of a valley far below or into a lake that threatens to swamp the coaches in water in its proximity. The concrete flyovers of the roads add something else to the scene – they aren’t beautiful but they do emphasise the weakness of human tenure in these high passes. The railway follows the Glacial valleys as much as possible and often passes alongside the many lakes in this part of Switzerland. Soon after leaving Zurich we were alongside the Zugersee and as we climbed further up into the mountains we passed by the Urnersee (lake of Lucerne). At times, as we passed through narrower valleys, we saw overhanging towers of rock held up by nothing more than obstinacy. The sheer cliffs on the sides of the wider valleys looked like they had been cut by God’s angle-grinder and displayed the tortured lines of long laid sediments pushed up under pressure – but these were the near vertical slopes sliced through by glaciers – the slightly shallower slopes, perhaps at 75 degrees from the horizontal, were deeply forested. This scenery is so different from the concrete cliff faces of central London! The beauty was well worth the expense and extra effort involved in the journey.
The summit of the line is a long straight tunnel, only reached after one complete circle a couple of extreme loop back bends in the track to gain the last few metres in height. Then the plunge down into Italian Switzerland begins. The line south of the Gotthard tunnel is generally straighter and higher speeds are possible. Even so, we were still treated to beautiful views of Lake Lugano and Lake Como. Now the ETR470 flew and the views of the towns, villages and farmland were fleeting and passing. It was an on time arrival at Milano Central and a slightly sad farewell to the Cisalpino train as we prepared for the final stage of our rail Journey to Rome.
Milan station is an amazing relic of the Italy that Mussolini tried to build. To step from the platforms into the concourse and booking hall is to step into the pre-war world of the fascists. The architecture is very empirical, drawing heavily on ancient Rome but smoothed to ease the hardened edge of that society. Even so, the area close to the platforms is crowded with passengers desperately watching for their train on the indicators.
The run to Rome would be on a FrecciaRossa service – the Italian equivalent of Eurostar / TGV and expected to produce a quality high speed service. It didn’t disappoint on the smoothness and speed though the scenery failed to be inspiring. Much of the route to Bologna, Firenza and Roma is across a plain of non-descript farmland. Even I, as a convicted viewer of what passes beyond the train window, reached for the Kindle. It’s amazing how much reading a story set in the arctic can cool you down in Italy’s summer heat! What can I say about the FrecciaRossa – good ride and on time departure and arrival. But, poor service in the bar – FS need to train their catering staff to deal with people in the order they arrive at the counter which, as every good publican knows, is the right way to keep customers happy.
Roma Termini is probably one of the ugliest railway stations I have ever had the misfortune to visit. I can’t think of any redeeming features for this building other than it handles the volume of traffic reasonably well – I should add that when we left a week later several trains including ours were late leaving, so I’d have to question the efficiency of the Italian Railways here. That said, we had a wonderful journey. I enjoyed a chat with two Italian passengers who, fortunately, had better English than I had Italian. We mused on the beauties of Florence and Colchester! Isn’t that what makes train travel so different to airlines – people have the time to speak to each other? But, when you’ve travelled from a station with the elegance of St. Pancras through the majesty of the Alps, Roma Termini is a disappointing end to the jouney. The same can possibly be said of the city, but it remains one of the cradles of European civilisation – If you’ve seen the Holywood epics and then visited the Forum you will understand what I’m saying!