Random thoughts about trains and transit

This page will talk about my experiences with train travel in the few train trips I've taken so far that I have pictures of. I'll also be comparing it to my normal commute, and how things could be improved to attract more people to the idea of going around using public transport in general.


Train travel in South Tyrol

At the beginning of 2022 I took a short trip to South Tyrol, in Italy. The region is generally considered to have among the best public transport in the country and, even though I wasn't able to check out its transit network as thoroughly as I would have liked to, what I did see was definitely enough to impress me: the stations were modern, clean and wheelchair-accessible; so were the trains themselves, while the service was extremely frequent, taking full advantage of the line.

I travelled between the stations of Villabassa and Lienz (Austria), on a cross-border regional train run by SAD, which operates most of the buses and trains in South Tyrol.

A modern Stadler FLIRT EMU operated by SAD, a major bus and train operator in the region.

The line

The train, originating in Fortezza/Franzensfeste, travels along the Pustertalbahn up to the border station of San Candido/Innichen and then on part of the Drautalbahn up to Lienz. Both lines are entirely electrified, at 3kV DC on the Italian side and 15kV AC in Austria, with trains switching between voltages in San Candido; they are also single-tracked, however with enough passing loops to mantain a fairly frequent service.

San Candido is also where trains heading to Austria change conductors, with the Austrian section being essentially run as an ÖBB (=Austrian railways) service, just with Italian rolling stock. This is likely also why this part of the journey isn't sold on Italian ticket machines: tickets have to be purchased on board.

The San Candido railway station; trains continuing to Austria change voltage and personnel here.

The service

However, the impressive part is that, despite the single-tracked line and not particularly high maximum speeds (understandable given that this is in the mountains), SAD still operates trains every 30 minutes between Fortezza and San Candido (and sometimes up to Sillian), with every other train terminating in Lienz.

Frequencies like these make what would already be a pretty good regional rail system into a truly excellent one - trains arrive so often that you might not even need to worry about the timetable, while tourists can move between the various towns and ski slopes (which are, in some cases, directly connected to the train stations) without having to use a car (a great way to reduce pollution), both of which are features cleverly promoted in the bus and train timetable leaflet found at tourist information centres.

The station in Villabassa is very modern, with an indoors waiting area, covered bike parking and full accessibility.

The trains

Service is carried out using Stadler FLIRT multi-voltage trains (ETR 170), capable of operating both under the 3kV DC used in Italy and the 15kV AC used in Austria. These trains have only entered service fairly recently and as such have a very modern interior, with wide windows, accessible toilets, information LCDs, bike and ski storage (very important especially given the amount of tourists in this area) and separate recycling bins.

It's also difficult not to notice the ample amount of spaces dedicated to wheelchair users and prams, most of which have foldable seats inside of them so they can alternatively be used as a standard seating area. In general, it's evident that much care and attention has been given to accessibility on the line: all the stations (minus the one in San Candido, which is planned to be moved closer to the centre) are accessible and the trains of course feature step-free access.

The interior of the FLIRT. Stadler makes great trains and this one is no exception, with spacious interiors and modern features.

The stations

As with the rolling stock, the stations on this line are also modern and well-kept. The platforms are 55cm high, to allow for level boarding, and elevators are present for wheelchair users, prams, people with suitcases and anyone that wants to use them (accessibility features can be useful for a whole number of users, not just people in wheelchairs).

Signage is of course bilingual, with station names being written both in Italian and German, and train announcements are in both languages as well.

While having been recently renovated, the Villabassa railway station still uses its original building, which has been well-preserved.

Conclusions

So, what can we learn from the trains in South Tyrol? Two things are present here which make this line truly great, and which any public transit service must have in order to be useful to the public and thus successful: frequency and user experience.

This line essentially does all of those things: the service is frequent and convenient to use; the stations are new and accessible. Unsurprisingly, this meant that there were a lot of people taking the train, even in Villabassa, which only has a population of 1600.

My only complaints were with the ticketing system: not being able to buy the tickets for the Austrian section on the Italian ticket machines is quite annoying and confusing for the end user; and there was no indication (not even a sign) that they had to be purchased on board of the train. We had to ask someone working there, which is certainly not ideal. Additionally, the only ticket machine in Villabassa was out of service; it was interesting however to see that the machines let you buy both train and bus tickets, quite a useful feature.

But that's, essentially, the only major complaint I had about the trains there. Everything else was pretty nice, with only a few minor improvements that I could think of, like using larger displays for the departures board at the stations (the standard ones used throughout Italy can only fit half the number of displayed trains when accomodating for the bilingual station names).


Lessons from Austria: good bus connections

During the aformentioned trip in South Tyrol I managed to visit Lienz, in Austria, by train. This was the first time I had ever been in an Austrian station, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with it. The building was modern and clean, and it was very easy to figure out which train to take by looking at the displays; plus, it was only a short walk away from the town centre.

However what I think struck me the most was how easy and convenient it was for someone to arrive by bus and take the train, or viceversa. I did not take a bus during that trip, but the bus stop built right into the station building itself was quite impressive to me, and clearly showed care and attention for people taking the bus to the station.

The bus terminal at the Lienz train station. Connecting from bus to train only takes a few steps.

The bus terminal felt open and spacious, simply a continuation of the station itself - in fact, as seen from the picture platform 1 is directly next to the bus stop: transferring couldn't be easier, and access to the other platfoms is of course trivially easy as well. The entire thing was screaming "multi-modal mobility", with the train station being much more than that: a transportation hub for the entire town, and even neighbouring areas thanks to the bus connections.

Often, bus infrastructure is subject to a lack of care and attention, even at major transfer points like at train stations. Such is the case where I live: bus stops at railway stations only have the usual shed to protect from the rain, and transferring requires crossing the road (and thus waiting at a crosswalk). It's no wonder that most people travel by car then: transit is clearly not considered a priority, and only there because "it has to exist".

This station, however, provides an excellent experience for any transit rider, protecting them from the rain and summer heat and also making transfers extremely easy.


Image gallery: Taking a look at the FUC railway

The train to Udine, about to leave. Announcements are made in various languages over the PA speakers.
The Cividale railway station. It is the terminus for the line that links the town with the city of Udine once an hour.
A Class ALn 663 diesel railcar. This line is not electrified, so service is carried out using DMUs - either this one or a more modern Stadler GTW.

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