Paoli local, Northeast Regional, Pacific Surfliner, Conca d'Oro, Palatino Express and even Orient Express. Thanks to days of commuting and nights with Agatha Christie, Billy Wilder and Ayn Rand, there is no doubt that I love trains. More comfortable than a car and far more elegant than an airplane, trains have always been my preferred method of travel, and perhaps one of the reasons I love living in Europe.
When in college, I spent my weekends in Fascist-era stations waiting for inter-city and regional trains as I counted the kilometers of my Ferrovia dello Stato kilometric pass, aka Eurail-cheap. And as I grew up, I grew into Trenitalia's Frecciarossa and particular fondness for the AltaVelocitￃﾠ (high speed). Later I found that bringing babies across borders is much less stressful in trains of any model.
To be honest, even though I have acted like a Trenitalia poster child for years, I was one of the first to step up to the yellow line when Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV) launched Italo this past spring. Founded by a quartet of Italy's best in business, privately-owned Italo has been hyped as the rival to state-run Trenitalia. Coming from the other side of the tracks, Italo may have been conceived as "the people's train," but with two of its founders being "Made-in-Italy" magnates -- Ferrari Chairman Luca Montezemolo and Tod's Diego della Valle -- Italo is upping the elegance ante in inter-regional commuting. Think Milan Fashion Week with magnet synchronous motors.
From my first journey, it is obvious that Italo is the full package, a sleek, needled-nosed racer with great personality and sexy interior design. On board and at the station, Italo's crew is young, friendly and multilingual. Props definitely to Montezemolo and crew as Italo has created over 1,000 positions.
Turin-based furniture manufacturer Poltrona Frau outfitted the Smart, Prima and Club cars with leather recliners, and in the case of Club (first class), a leather-walled private cabin. (Poltrona Frau's other clients include Bugatti, Ferrari and Maserati.) Though sadly Italo has left dining cars by the wayside, NTV recruited Eataly, Italy's super fab Made-in-Italy supermarket, to cater in-seat lunch boxes.
Touch-screen TVs, private valets, sitting rooms, a conversation and cell-phone free Relax car and a Cinema car make up a single train. Prices are competitive with Trenitalia, but Italo's customer service -- such as the literal up-to-the-last-minute changes and easy to reach/understand phone operators -- is far better. I made four changes -- three last minute in-station and one over the phone -- without incurring a fee or frustration.
Will Italo push Trenitalia off the tracks? I don't think so. Right now, Italo runs just a wee bit faster, looks better and is easier. However, its menu of cities only includes Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples and Bologna. Eventually they'll add Salerno, Padova and Venice.
Although Italo stops in some seemingly less busy stations such as Rome's Tiburtina and Milan's Porta Garibaldi, the stations are not in the center of either city, making an impatient traveler like myself even more so. But thanks must be given to NTV for to bringing back rail sophistication, not only to its trains but to Trenitalia as well, which has begun an overhaul of both rail and customer service. All aboard!