Looking At Italian Trains…and at Ours.

SIENA, ITALY–Fifty-plus years ago, the gag definition of “mixed emotions” was watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your brand new car.
I’ve got a new one: “Mixed emotions is traveling from Tirano to Siena on three different trains and comparing that experience to Amtrak.”
Each of those Italian trains departed and arrived on time. The Milan to Florence train ran much of the time at 190 miles an hour. My connecting time in Milan was 35 minutes; in Florence, it was 15 minutes. I made both connections without a problem.
Matthew Foy of Railbookers in London enclosed a note when he shipped all my rail tickets to me: Not to worry if something unusual happened and I missed that connection in Florence because, he said, another train would be leaving Florence for Siena a half hour later.
Italians can go just about anywhere in their country by train–quickly, conveniently and inexpensively. So can the French. And so can the Germans and the Dutch and the Belgians and the Norwegians and the Japanese … and now most of the Chinese can, too.
But most anywhere outside of the Northeast Corridor in the U.S., you may have to drive 50 or 60 miles to the nearest railroad station to catch an Amtrak train that is due in at 1:30 in the morning, but could be several hours late. And, of course, if the train you want happens to be the Cardinal or the Sunset Limited, and you miss the Saturday train, the next one won’t be along until Tuesday!
But wait! Congress has finally started to deal with Amtrak’s problems. Congressman John Mica (R-Florida) publicly attacks Amtrak for losing a couple of bucks on each hamburger sold in their dining cars. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-California) gets a law passed forcing Amtrak to carry their passengers’ pets. One day after a train wreck kills eight people, a Congressional Committee votes to cut $250 million from Amtrak’s budget. And almost 150 Republican members of Congress vote in favor of an amendment that would effectively kill Amtrak by eliminating its small subsidy altogether.
When it comes to passenger trains, the rest of the world has got it pretty well figured out … and they’re kicking our ass. I spent most of today staring that unpleasant fact right in the face. And I’m pissed.
(And, yes, no photos because the internet connection is very slow in my hotel in Siena.)