To make mobility sustainableand therefore reduce the pollution produced by traffic congestion, there is only one possibility: to offer an alternative to the car. Especially in a key sector, regional trains. For the millions of commuters who pour into the cities every morning and must reach their workplace, school and university on time, trains must be efficient and reliable. Where are we in this transition? On regional trains, between 2009 and 2019, passengers in Campania fell from 400,000 to 250,000 per day; the 500,000 in Lazio tend to decrease; in Piedmont, Puglia, Tuscany and Veneto they have grown a bit. Lombardy is a particular case: in the same decade, regional travelers had gone from less than 600,000 to 820,000 per day (bringing along an overall national growth of about 1 percent a year). In 2022, however, they fell between 630/650 thousand per day, about 200 thousand less than in 2019. And beware: that number refers to rail transport throughout Lombardy. By comparison, over 700,000 cars per day enter Milan from outside the municipality alone.
The data for Lombardy is representative: that on regional trains is the portion of mobility that throughout the country finds it most difficult to recover pre-pandemic levels. Passengers were a total of 3 million a day in 2019: after the collapse of 2020, with the recovery of 2022 they rose to 2.3 million (in the first three months of the year there were still some limitations). Still 23 percent down. The use of the car, on the other hand, has increased. Italy, therefore, has come out of Covid with a sort of counter-revolution in sustainable mobility. Behind this number there is not only smart working, which has undoubtedly reduced a share of travel, but more structural issues. There are eleven thousand kilometers (56 percent) of single-track railways. Almost 6 thousand kilometers (29 percent) still with diesel trains. The “poorer” infrastructures concern almost exclusively regional connections, and above all in the South. If we move from the tracks to the trains, 43 percent of the almost 2,800 regional trains are over 15 years old, with peaks of “seniority” above 70 percent in Calabria and Campania. In everyday life this picture translates into a series of failures, delays and cancellations that torment the sorrowful mass of commuters. That if they have to arrive on time for work, they reevaluate the car. And that’s exactly what happened: some of those who had resumed traveling by car during Covid are not returning to the train. If this is the consequence, the causes are older.
The horse and the elephant
Legambiente’s 2023 «Pendolaria» report shows that the amount of transfers from the State to the Regions for public transport has decreased by over one billion compared to 2009 (from 6.2 to 5.1 billion in 2023), with the Regions themselves spending on average less than 0.6 percent of the budget on railway services. In addition to the autonomous provinces of Trento and Bolzano, the only region that commits more than 1% is Lombardy. Legambiente also calculates that between 2010 and 2020 78 kilometers of national and regional railways (excluding high-speed) were built. In the same decade, there were 310 extra kilometers of motorway.
Of course, the railway system did not stand still, but it grew on two roads: an elephant walked on one side, a horse galloped on the other. Just look at the development of high-speed rail: Trenitalia passengers rose from 6.5 million in 2012 to 47 million in 2019; in the same period, those of Italo went from 4.5 million to 20.1. The fleet of super-fast trains has almost doubled. In fact, there is therefore a separation between the three worlds of railways: the upper (and profitable) high-speed world, the middle world (the Intercity) is already Serie B, and basically the submerged one of the regional ones.
The three worlds of railways
To understand how far the three worlds are, you can do an experiment. Take into account that you are in front of the departures board at the Naples Central station at 8 in the morning (the data is the result of proof of ticket purchases for 2 May). Let’s say you have to go to Rome. The Frecciarossa leaves at 8.09; at 9.25 he is in the capital: 220 kilometres, one hour and 16 minutes, cost 38.9 euros. Let’s say instead that you have to reach Bari: departure at 8.12, on a regional train. You have no choice. You will have to get off in Caserta, change trains, and you will be in Bari at 12.11. The distance is greater by only 30 kilometers, but the journey takes 2 hours and 43 minutes more. In summary: Naples-Rome in one hour and 16; Naples-Bari in 3 hours and 59. Will there be savings? No. In Economy, the Naples-Bari cost 43.6 euros, 4.7 euros more than the Frecciarossa to Rome. Is there at least one direct during the day? No. And this is the distance between the first two worlds. The third world can be seen by staying in Naples: commuters disembark and for just over 40 kilometres, such as a Nocera Inferiore-Naples or Sorrento-Naples, it takes from one hour to one hour and 20. When it’s good. Because the 142 kilometers of the former circumvesuvian lines have been in the ranking of the worst Italian routes for years in the «Commuting» report. Being able to count on a (quite) punctual train is crucial for those who have to reach offices or schools. In Lombardy, which also has the most extensive service in Italy, last February 9 out of 42 lines did not meet the reliability standard due to the number of canceled trains and delays of more than 15 minutes.
In 20 years 7 million more cars
Once the picture of the trains has been defined, let’s consider the alternatives. Naples-Bari by bus costs 12 euros, the journey takes 3 hours. With about ten euros more than the train (35 for petrol and 20 for toll) you can get to Bari by car in 2 and a half hours. So highway beats rail. And this is the result: compared to 20 years ago, 7 million more cars and 2 million motorbikes and mopeds are circulating in Italy. Here is the counter-revolution, it is inside the Isfort’s “19th Report on the mobility of Italians”: in 2021 the motorisation rate rose to 67.2 vehicles per 100 inhabitants (66.6 in 2020). Reggio Calabria, Catania and Florence have more than 70 cars for every 100 inhabitants; Rome, Bologna, Turin, Palermo and Naples are over 60. In Madrid there are 48 cars for every 100 inhabitants, in London 36, in Berlin 35. And it’s not just a matter of civic sense, but of investments and strategies. Efficient services attract passengers, poor ones struggle. This was already true before, but the pandemic has aggravated the gap: of the total number of trips in urban areas in Italy, in 2022 the use of the car rose to 64 percent (up 1.5 compared to 2019), that of all public transport reaches 7.6 (-3.2). The estimates are contained in the annex to the latest government economic and financial document. The promise, and the hope of a true transformation of mobility is entrusted to the Pnrr.
Between the investments already started and the European Plan, there are a total of around 53 billion dedicated to railway infrastructure and transport. Most (38) will go at high speed: almost 5 billion for Naples-Bari, Palermo-Catania and Salerno-Reggio; then the great connections with the corridors of Northern Europe.
Almost 10 billion are also planned for secondary lines: 700 million for stations in the South, 800 for new trains, 2.5 billion for infrastructure. Money to spend by 2026. Once incompatible with our administrative processes that need to be reformed, but no one has touched on it yet. If we continue to delay it means that a large part of these funds will be withdrawn.