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Italy launches Rome-Milan high-speed train

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Colleen Barry on December 17.)

ABOARD ES ITALIA AV 9427 — Just outside Milan, the countryside started to blur as the Italian Railway's new Red Arrow high-speed train reached its maximum velocity of 186 mph (300 kph).

Dario Rigamonti, a consultant traveling to Florence on Monday, moved to an empty window seat, gazing out in wonder: "It is impressive."

The speedier service shaves an hour off the lucrative 300-mile (500-kilometer) Milan-Rome route, connecting Italy's political and financial capitals in three hours and 30 minutes 18 times a day.

The timing of the new service, which launched Sunday, couldn't be better for the state-owned Italian Railway. Air service between Milan and Rome has been thrown into disarray with the relaunch of Alitalia, which lost passengers to trains and to the highways as wildcat strikes and reduced connections made air travel uncertain.

A second-class one-way ticket can cost around euro67 ($90.52), while an airline trip is at least euro90 ($121.59) and driving can cost some euro85 ($114.84) in gas and toll charges.

Italian Railway CEO Mauro Moretti aims to snag 60 percent of the 3.7 million passengers who fly the route every year.

But analyst Diego Petrocelli of Bain & Co. said they won't really start taking a bite out of air travelers until the time gets under three hours. Attainment of that goal is expected at the end of 2010 when the track between Florence and Bologna is improved to shorten that leg to 30 minutes.

The Italian Railway will have to consolidate passenger loyalty before 2011, when it faces private competition in the form of NTV, a new company led by Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.

The new company, which will launch with 25 11-car AGV trains by French engineering company Alstom SA, plans to connect Italy's most important business centers.

High-speed travel is not news in Europe. France launched the first TGV service in 1981, between Paris and Lyon, shortening a five-hour drive to two hours and 40 minutes. Germany's InterCity Express trains began service in 1991 and Spain started its first fast trains in 1992 to coincide with the Seville Expo that year.

The Spanish railway's high-speed service from Madrid to Barcelona took off in February, going after a chunk of Europe's busiest air route, which registered 4.7 million passengers in 2006.

The 400-mile (650-kilometer) trip by rail takes two hours and 38 minutes — well under the three-hour benchmark for attracting frequent fliers.

Italy began its first-high-speed service on the Rome-Naples route in 2005.

The future will be connecting high-speed service with neighboring countries — but that seems a while off, said Petrocelli.

Work on the hotly contested high-speed TAV line between Turin and Lyon in neighboring France was halted due to protests before the 2006 Winter Olympic Games — and still has not resumed. The stretch is part of a European-wide project to connect Lisbon, Portugal and Kiev, Ukraine, by train.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

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