Forget Ferrari, Italy’s railways are truly their best achievement
Cuisine, catenaccio, sports cars and fashion make up but a part of the list of Italian exports that the world has been able to admire and enjoy for many years. Ferrari, Armani, Gucci. These are only a few of the names that spring to mind when one thinks of great Italian success stories. But Italy has far more to offer us. In particular, we should consider their high-speed, affordable rail system, which is operated by two separate providers through affordable prices and a sound infrastructure. The Italian system is superior to most European rail networks and is certainly a system we could do our best to imitate.
It is ironic that I write this while waiting for a delayed, overpriced Thameslink train to London St Pancras. Even if that were not the case, those of you reading this would still believe it. This helps summarise the two fundamental issues with Britain’s rail system: an extreme lack of competition and a tremendous lack of incentive for the providers to improve service. After all, it would not be worth potentially sacrificing a high-paying job in central London by boycotting a sub-standard service. People are forced to use the trains they are provided with. So long as Southern Rail and co. keep profiting from the lack of choice customers have, these companies will have no reason to change.
It is now reaching the point where more often than not, you will see your train delayed, cancelled – or too full to board at all. The process for delay repayments is not straightforward, and rarely do you receive full compensation. The issue is not that the rail companies are private – Virgin Trains, for example, does not operate such a poor service – the issue is that there is no proper competition for many routes. If a wealthy competitor – whether that be a completely state-owned company or a new private operator – were to start charging less for cleaner, on-time trains, commuters would flock to its service.
The Italian system sought to improve on its previous, disastrous state monopoly by gradually phasing in a private company to operate various intercity routes. Italo was created as a competitor to state-owned Trenitalia, and offers competitive prices for many important intercity routes. The trains are very well kept – there are far more facilities for customers to use on both operators, and the trains are far quicker and cleaner. Many routes, used by tourists and businessmen alike, are provided by both Trenitalia and Italo, meaning each company needed to improve the quality of their trains to attract customers. There is no clear answer to which of the major providers offers a better service. Whilst Italo offers fewer routes, it is a younger company, and still provides comparable quality on board.
An improved train service in Britain would also be a major boost for house prices in commuter towns. The new Elizabeth Line is expected to boost prices in the areas it runs close to, whereas Southern Rail’s new timetable could have a devastating effect on the affected areas. It is difficult for commuters to reach London, but the recent timetable change will only worsen the issue. Ultimately a good service requires far more than commuter comfort and free Wi-Fi.
I would not argue that phasing in a private competitor is the most efficient, short-term solution to the problems with Britain’s rail, and the evidence I give is largely anecdotal. But given the huge issues faced by the British railways, it is surely more than worth examining the possibilities of utilising the Italian system?