Italy has a fantastic rail system served by Trenitalia, the government owned passenger rail service, Italio, a private passenger rail service providing high speed connections between larger cities, various regional and local train services, and several international passenger trains.
I’ve lived in several Italian cities and have had many awesome adventures on Italian trains. On one train that I take several days a week, there is often a musician wandering through the training playing his accordion for tips. I sometimes encounter people with dogs on the train which always puts a smile on my face.
Trenitalia is the largest provider with the most stations and the greatest number of daily trains. Trenitalia offers several types of trains and several classes of service.
Buying Tickets – For Trenitalia trains, you can buy tickets from the ticket window at larger stations, from ticket machines, or online using the Trenitalia website or app. At a small station, there may be only one or two ticket machines. Some of them take bills, some take coins, and some take certain credit cards. Most Trenitalia ticket machines take most international credit cards, but certain older machines, especially in more remote places, only take credit cards that use the euro “chip and pin” validation system. The physical form of the tickets also vary depending on the kind of machine you use to buy one.
The best alternative for me is to use the Trenitalia app on my phone. The tickets are bought and paid for using the app. Tickets are issued electronically and can be stored in a digital wallet. I started using this when the ticket machine at a station I used frequently stopped working. When I found out how well the app worked, I pretty much have used it ever since.
Normal Trains – The slowest trains are the Regionale (indicated by an “R” on the schedule). These stop at stations in smaller cities and go a bit slower. Regionale Veloce (indicated by an RV on the schedule) trains are faster, stop at fewer stations and in some cases, provide both 2nd and 1st class coaches. The class of the coach is written on the side of the train.
The difference between 1st and 2nd class is, on many trains, difficult to notice. Often 1st class cars have tables between seats while 2nd class cars usually do not. However, on some RV trains, there may be 1st class cars being used for 2nd class service. It’s confusing.
Tickets for R and RV trains can be purchased from ticket machines in the station, from ticket counters at larger stations, or on your cell phone using the Trenitalia app. Note that in smaller stations, ticket machines may not be operational, or may only take credit cards, only currency, or only coins. For me, the app is usually the best way to go, but be sure to have the ticket saved on your phone so that if there is no internet when the conductor comes around, you can still prove you have a ticket.
Validating Your Ticket
If you have a paper ticket for an R or RV train, you must validate it at a validation machine before boarding the train. The tickets are good for several hours. When you validate your ticket (slide it in the slot as shown and move it to the left), the date and time is stamped on your ticket and you are good to go. If you use the app, you do not need to validate the ticket. Be sure to check that the time/date was actually printed on your ticket. I do know of instances where the stamp wasn’t legible or the machine was out of ink. If your ticket is not validated, you may have to pay a fine.
If you use the app, you do not need to validate the ticket.
I take a lot of Italian trains, and usually see the conductor once out of every four or five trips. If the conductor doesn’t come by for your ticket, just get off the train and go about your business. If the ticket machine in the station is not working (not unknown at smaller stations), when you get on the train, immediately walk from one end of the train to the other looking for the conductor and explain the problem. You can usually buy a ticket from her/him if you ask first. If however, you don’t have a ticket when the conductor comes to check, you may be fined as much as 200 Euros.
Remember to validate your R or RV ticket before boarding the train.
High Speed Trains – Trenitalia has four or five (depending on how you count) types of high speed trains and they run between all the major Italian cities.
Italo is a private competitor and has high speed trains between some of the major cities.
All high speed train tickets (both Treinitalia and Italo) include a reservation for a specific seat on the train. You do not need to validate a high speed train ticket prior to boarding.
Trenitalia high speed trains include Intercity (indicated by IC on the schedule) and three types of “Arrow” trains. These includes Frecciabianca, Frecciargento, and Frecciarosso trains, and Italio’s highspeed trains.
One final type of national train is the Intercity Notte from Trenitalia. These trains run through the night and offer very comfortable sitting and sleeping options.
There are also several provincial and regional train systems that are a little more difficult to figure out. The internet and translation apps are your friend here.
Finding your train at the station
You’ve purchased your ticket and it’s time to find your train. Look at the electronic notice board in the station for the train number that you are taking. You are looking for “Partenze” (Departures). Find your train number (it’s on your ticket) and look on the notice board for the “binario” or track number. In many stations there is an underground walkway between the various tracks.
In a growing number of larger Italian train stations, you are required to show a train ticket in order to get to the platform. This is a very good thing as it help eliminate pickpockets and scammers.
At Bologna Centrale, there are actually two sets of tracks; a surface level, and an underground level that is used mostly by high speed trains.
If you’re lost at a larger station, look for a uniformed railroad employee. They mostly wear red vests or jackets with the company logo. Avoid getting accepting help from strangers who may be kind people, but may also be scammers looking for a tip.
Small Town Stations
While stations and trains mostly work well in larger stations, in some smaller stations things may be a little less organized. In most small stations there are no staffed ticket windows and you can only get your ticket from a machine. Machines are sometimes out of order, may only accept coins, bills, credit cards, etc. In some rural stations, only european style chip/pin cards will work.
Sometimes stations are on the edge of the city or even further afield. There is almost always a bus stop outside of the station in larger cities, or some other means to get to the center. Siena is a excellent example. The station is way below the center. There are a series of 8 escalators in a shopping center across the street that woosh you up to the street level of the city.
Italian trains, in general, work well, are usually on time, and go many places. Taking a train is usually easier than renting a car, and usually much less expensive. Here are a few resources that might help:
Trenitalia Website in English – https://www.trenitalia.com/en.html
Italo Website in English – https://www.italotreno.it/en
Rome2Rio – Awesome route finding website – https://www.rome2rio.com/