When I was about 9, my parents bought me a copy of the Ian Allan “Locospotters Annual” for Christmas, and inside were all manner of railway stories and photographs. Amongst these was a particular item about the Italian State Railways train which operated from Rome to Milan, as one of the new, post war luxury trains – this was the “Settebello”, “Beautiful Seven” or “Lucky Seven”. This, and a few other stories set me on course to visit and travel on a variety of European railways.
In Italy, this service started in 1953, using the ETR300 series of multiple unit trains. At the time it was the epitome of high-speed luxury, with the fastest section of its route between Rome and Bologna, where it would average 130 km/hr. This train was seven-carriages, electrically hauled throughout, reaching Milan in 6 hours initially, but accelerated until the journey time in 1978 was 5 hours 35 minutes. It became part of the TEE network from 1974, with international services operated jointly by Italy, West Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
As the luxury, supplement-charging train, the “Settebello” ceased operating in 1984, but was renamed in that year, under the TEE brand as the “Colosseum”. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to ride on this service, but Italian railways have continued to expand its high-speed network, with “Direttissima” lines connecting the major cities, Rome, Florence, Turin, Milan, Venice, etc.
Like the UK, Italy developed and operated ‘tilting trains’ in fixed formations since the 1960s, to enable increased speeds on existing tracks, without the need to build new, more direct high-speed lines. The Italian developments back to the late 1960s when Fiat Ferroviaria carried out its first experiments with tilting technology. The first real steps forward were made in 1976, when the experimental ETR401 took to the rails. This four-coach train was the first in the world and the nickname “Pendolino” adopted on the famous tilting railcar experiments stuck.
Ironically perhaps, the technology used on the “Pendolino” trains in Britain uses technology developed by British Rail in Derby for the ill-fated “Advanced Passenger Train” (APT). This was later acquired and adapted by Fiat, for the ETR450 trains, which began operating between Rome and Milan in 1988, followed by another 9-car series – the ETR460 in 1992.
However, not all high-speed trains in Italy are tilting trains, largely thanks to the construction of the new high-speed routes. Services like the Freccia Rossa, Freccia Argento, and Freccia Bianca provide the backbone of operations on long distance national and international services. More recently, as the expansion of ‘privatisation’, competition from the new ‘Italo’ train operators has seen ever more innovation, and the latest ETR600 series of tilting trains, first seen in 2006.
Whilst not having had the pleasure of a trip on the “Settebello”, I have had a number of enjoyable trips on high-speed (non-tilting) trains on the Turin-Milan-Venice main line, notably behind the ETR500 series, such as the ‘Frecciabianca’ below:
We have a lot in common with the Italian approach to the ‘little pendulum’ trains, although the UK has been much slower to invest in high-speed rail than other European countries, and the tilting trains operated by ‘Virgin Trains’ in Britain are now 16 years old. The tilting mechanism was applied to the all-electric units as shown below, and some of the diesel powered variants on cross-country services.
There are some new trains entering service in 2017/18 in the UK, built by Hitachi, in Pistoia, Italy, Japan, and in the UK. These new 9-car units will operate on the Great Western and East Coast main lines, and as Class 800 also have both all electric and diesel powered options, and are part of the UK’s IEP (InterCity Express Programme), announced back in 2009.
Whilst the old manufacturers such as GEC-Alstom (who built the original UK high-speed pendolino sets), may not be as common as they once were on the rails, perhaps the Hitachi designs will offer comparable results.