THINK OF A reason for abandoning plans to build a high speed railway, and you will find it among those cited by Italian Environment Minister Edo Ronchi for cancelling the 135 km line from Milano to Genova. Announcing his decision on July 15, Ronchi produced a 20-page ruling that referred to exaggerated traffic forecasts, geological and hydrological problems, risk of damage to historic buildings, noise pollution and much else besides, including an effetto bang in the small valleys through which the line would pass. A reference to ’excessive speed’ presumably meant the 300 km/h design speed, perhaps a more justified criticism of the 4956bn lire project put forward in 1990 by a consortium of banks, businesses and the Nord Milano Railway.

Cancellation deals a heavy blow to Italian State Railways’ ambitions to complete a network of high speed lines, although the essential Napoli - Milano trunk and links from Milano to Torino and Venezia remain intact. It will be more ammunition for the railway’s detractors, who have had a field day in the past year - FS has suffered from an image-wrecking series of reliability problems, exacerbated by a worse than usual bout of fever in its interminable financial malaise. The media has consistently referred to safety shortcomings, but as FS President Claudio Demattè said on July 16, and as we pointed out earlier this year (RG 4.98 p209) the difficulties are related to punctuality and service quality.

The real issues go deeper, and hinge on the government’s failure to release FS from its clutches. Last year’s attempt to build a business plan that included freedom to set fares levels got nowhere (RG 1.98 p45), and it seems that FS is as beholden as ever to the whims of politicians and trade unions. But the recent ’crisis’ seems to have bounced the management into measures that are little short of panic. Our correspondent reports that diesel locos are to be stationed along the Roma - Firenze direttissima in case of electric traction failures, that track maintenance work will be undertaken exclusively at night, and that up to 7% of services may have to be withdrawn if track renewals are not completed soon.

In theory, accounting separation of operations and infrastructure as required by EU directive 91/440 took effect on July 1, but disagreements over cost allocations have already spawned controversy. The proposed access charges would see suburban and regional trains paying 10139 lire/km, long-distance passenger trains 5095 lire/km and freight just 3347 lire/km. This would generate annual payments to infrastructure business ASA Rete of 383·3bn lire from long-distance services, 260bn from freight and 836·5bn lire from regional and suburban passenger services, which FS justifies by saying routes around cities are jammed with traffic and the operator must therefore pay a charge reflecting intensive use.

None of this can disguise the fundamental problem of poor productivity. Despite major staff cuts in the last few years, the railway’s room for manoeuvre in freight pricing in the battle against road haulage is tiny. What more damning indictment could there be than the revelation by FS Cargo Director General Andrea Migliuolo (p511) that FS still has two drivers on each freight train and that each drives for just 2h 20min a day? o