Last week, I had the rare chance to compare two countries’ high-speed rail services side-by-side. I was travelling the Rome-to-Paris daylight rail route—there is an overnight train too—and boarded the Trenitalia Frecciarossa at Rome Termini station at 1300. I jumped off at Turin’s airy new Porta Susa terminal, hung about for 40 minutes, bolted a coffee, then boarded the 1735 to Paris Gare de Lyon.
So, for service, comfort, facilities and more… it was a Freccia vs TGV standard-class shootout
This thing flies along, at 300 km/h and more—and in 2014 Trenitalia will launch a Milan–Rome train that can do 400 km/h, and will operate at 360 km/h, the Freccia 1000:
The speed on that important business-to-capital route has taken a huge chunk from the domestic flight market— a good thing.
Standard class seats are comfortable, with decent lumbar support and a well-positioned headrest. Legroom is reasonable; not great if you are as tall as me (180-ish cm / just under 6 ft), but I wasn’t uncomfortable even though I hardly got out my seat for 4 hours. Tables are big enough to perch a 13-inch laptop on, just.
Onboard gadgetry is pretty good too. There are ceiling screens spaced at regular intervals to pinpoint the train on a map, and each displays current speed and a constantly updated estimated delay. Our train ran 12 minutes late on a journey time of about 4 hours. I’ve only been significantly late once in about 20 journeys on the Frecciarossa over the last couple of years. Each seat has a power point. Irritatingly, if you have a UK adapter on your plug and close your table leaf, it pops the thing out. There’s Wi-Fi. OK, it’s a bit shaky, but I’ve never used train Wi-Fi that wasn’t. It works and is free to use.
That’s the good. There is some bad, and the major downside is the price. Unless you book way ahead (I usually use an excellent agent, International Rail), prices are steep. I had to make some last-minute changes to my route, so I only booked three days ahead of departure. The Rome–Turin leg cost me 90€. The walk-up fares are even higher, making it almost unusable on a whim for anyone who isn’t either on expenses or loaded. Book ahead… as far ahead as possible. You can get Rome–Milan for under 30€ each way. Turin–Florence for under 20€. Fantastic value for such a high-quality service. Fares are released around 4 months in advance.
It wasn’t so long ago that France’s high-speed network was the last word in fast train travel, in Europe at least. Is that still the case? First, let me say I’m basing this on one journey only. I don’t ride France’s high-speed network with anything like the regularity I do in Italy.
The carriage immediately looked more dated—understandable, because France’s TGV has been around for longer than Italy’s network. The carpet was a bit ragged, but the seat upholstery was perfectly clean. There was no headrest—irritating on a long journey that stretches into darkness—and lumbar support was pretty minimal. The plastic-encased strip lighting threw a vaguely yellow haze over the carriage as night fell. Not nice.
Legroom was similar to the Freccia, perhaps a little better, and the tabletop space was definitely bigger. I had space to work in comfort. Seat numbering was disorganized—each seat seemed to have two numbers, and nobody I asked in the carriage had any idea whether they were in the right place or not. Stops in each station (5 in total) were long too. Not so bad in itself. But it allowed time passengers to jump off, smoke, and get back on. The “non-smoking” cabin smelled unpleasant for a good 10 minutes after each halt.
And it was equipment where the TGV also let itself down. My seat had no power point—fortunately I was carrying one of these. No Wi-Fi. Indecipherable tannoy announcements, in all three languages. Disconnected travel. But remember: there may well be newer rolling stock on more “prestigious” TGV routes.
One point the TGV does score well on is price, relative to the Freccia at least. The two legs of my journey cost roughly the same, yet the point-to-point distances are over 100km apart. My TGV ticket worked out cheaper, even booking at the last minute, as I did. The train was also punctual, important for a late-evening arrival.
The day train between Paris and Rome
The daylight route between Paris and Rome takes around 11 hours, including connection time. If you want to cover the ground quickly, it involves French TGV and Italian Freccia high-speed trains (or a rival Italian high-speed operator, Italo).
The train is a fine way to travel. It allows me to say a proper goodbye to a place, and to watch a new destination unfold gradually. The Eternal City became the hills of Lazio then Tuscany, then the plains of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy and the rice paddies of Piedmont. A switch of train took us into the Alps, and we bored right through the wall of granite that separates France and Italy. And then I watched the forests and the rivers churned white with meltwater and the pastures and the one-street towns all slowly recede into the night. And then I sat there and got annoyed about the Wi-Fi.
For service quality, the TGV is no match for the Frecciarossa, that’s for sure. But it’s still a fast and relatively comfortable service and I look forward to riding it again. I have also ridden the other option: a 15-hour overnight sleeper train from Paris–Gare de Lyon to Rome, operated since 2012 by Thello. But that’s for another time.
[Disclosure: I have in the past travelled as a guest of Trenitalia. However, on this occasion, I paid all fares myself.]
Train track image provided by Unsplash