To Rome and back by train…

We have just arrived back from a 10-day return trip to Rome by train via Paris, Geneva, Strasbourg and Milan with overnight stops in Basel and Lyon.  Apart from the salami incident in Geneva (see later) and a bus-rail replacement on the Geneva-Lyon section the same day, it all worked pretty well.  I also learned a lot and saw first-hand some of the things we need to be better at in Wales and the UK.

I’ll start with pricing.  My wife and I each bought a first class interrail ticket that allowed 5 days travel in a month.  We also had to pay to reserve seats on TGV, Eurostar and Frecciarossa services. In total we paid about 450 Euros each. Even with the poor exchange rate, that’s about £400 each for 4,000 Km of rail on about 14 trains.   In fact, not much more than the £350ish for a turn up first-class ticket from Manchester to London, or from Cardiff to London.  Just this staggering difference in what you get for your money tells you how much more seriously European governments take public transport – and now the urgent need to mode shift and decarbonise our mobility options. 

Figure 1 Interrail Trip – to Rome and back

Please correct me if I am wrong, but the fact that subsidies per capita for rail operations across most of Europe (via the taxpayer) are higher than the UK (where more of the burden is allocated to the passenger) is reflective of the long-term systemic undervaluation of the importance of high quality, accessible public transport in the UK.  The more generally held European view of public transport as essential economic infrastructure is also manifest in the availability and range of services available to passengers – and capacity. This more enlightened view is not shared by Westminster.

Also, from both a political and cultural perspective, I was both sad and angry when we arrived in Basel.  The bar staff at our hotel effortlessly switching between 3 if not more languages (puts my recent foray into learning Welsh at long last to shame) in a city straddling 3 countries, one of which, Switzerland, is not even in the EU but is in Schengen and the European Free Trade Area (EFTA)[i], enabling generally frictionless movement of people across the border.

Britain is currently outside all the current useful arrangements for travelling to/from and trading with all other European countries, apart from the Common Travel Area (CTA) with Ireland. As we can now clearly see, this current status has reduced the UK’s GDP by about 4% according to the Office for Budget Responsibility[ii]. I also had to deal with the queue at St Pancras to go through passport control, my wife sailed through with her Irish passport.

Figure 2 Complex relationship between European countries ( Statista 2020)[iii]

What was perhaps more stark and a reflection of a more mutually respectful and cooperative working relationship, even Basel’s local tram system crosses two international borders with services operating into the city centre from France and Germany.  Clearly all three countries cooperate to support and maintain the transport system in and around Basel. 

So, from a Welsh perspective, don’t let the naysayers say Wales can’t have devolution of rail powers because of the porous “England and Wales” border.  That’s b********; mature countries work together cooperatively to manage and fund cross border infrastructure;  not like the current situation in Wales where Whitehall holds all the main rail strings and purse, and has done pretty much nothing for Wales for decades as regards as major rail enhancement investment.  Yes, I’m angry about that.

Basel, if a little quiet compared to Lyon and especially Rome, was also desperately efficient and well planned. Outside the  station (as is typical across Switzerland – see pictures below) were bus stops, tram stops and cycle routes.  Roads were lined with 7/8/9/10 story buildings with mixed uses;  the resulting density helping to ensure demand and affordability of public transport (PT).  Compare that to low density car-based, suburban sprawl typical of most UK cities…and encouraged by most of the UKs volume house builders.   When people say Cardiff is too big, too busy, unable to cope with more people! I say, really! take a look at compact efficient cities in Europe that have really good PT,  dense mixed use, great urban realm, great public spaces.  These cities are I guess are at least 2-3 (if not more) times more densely populated.   It works, it really does!

So, we can learn from such places.  For example, one of the routes on the approach to Basel station, Aeschengraben, could be a proxy for the Bute Street/Lloyd George Avenue approach to Cardiff Central via Callaghan Square.  A broad avenue which includes road, bus, tram, cycle way, pavements and a green corridor flanked by 7/8 story buildings.  I did reference this in a blog a few years ago re Lloyd George Avenue and Metro.  Such people focussed urban realm that integrates public transport and active travel with public space is possible to achieve. (See pictures below)

Figure 3 Basel Station

Figure 4 Aeschengraben at Basel station

Figure 5 Cycle Routes on Aeschengraben at Basel station

Figure 6 Aeschengraben at Basel station

Figure 7 Aeschengraben at Basel station

Figure 8 Aeschengraben at Basel station

In Basel, the courtesy and respect of car drivers toward pedestrians and cyclists was  also stark (again when compared to the typical UK experience); drivers waiting for pedestrians to cross, even when we didn’t!  In fact, cars, people, cyclists and buses/trams all shared the same spaces without the tension more typically experienced in the UK.  Lyon was similar – although, perhaps not so much, Rome!

We stayed less than 24 hours in Basel, the main event was coming up in Rome, and later in the Sabine hills to the north to see my family in Casperia – Plug again for La Torretta B&B

Rome if more frantic, a little grubbier with an underlying sense of menace was, as always, an unforgettable experience.  My wife had her wallet stolen after arriving on a bus at the Colosseum.  I have to say it was impressive work – I estimate that within 5 seconds of getting of the bus my wife’s wallet was gone!  Her name probably appears at the top of some sort of local Faginesque leader board!

Our arrival late on Tuesday evening, after travelling from Basel, at our booked Airbnb in Trastevere was also problematic; this time due to the fact the door key did not work and we could not access the flat….and the owner was uncontactable!   Much emailing to Airbnb ensued, and after walking through the rain with our backpacks to a restaurant we had booked, we managed to contact the “owner” who at 10PM eventually got us in to the flat!  

My impression of Airbnb is now tarnished, and so probably won’t use again without really checking what I am paying for.  When we first did so 10 years ago, Airbnb was populated by people making their homes available to visitors.   Now it is clear that many of the “hi we are Claudia and Fredrico, and this is our lovely flat” are just covers for local businesses that have hoovered up lots of local properties just to use as Airbnb lets.   This is not good.  I want the old Airbnb back; the new one is denying local homes and inflating rentals and property prices – and extracting value.

Despite all this I love Rome, the energy, the people and especially the food. Cacio a Pepe Carbonara, Amatriciana.  You can keep you ruins and museum, I just came for the food…and it was local, and it was good in both Rome and Casperia.  I covered my views of the local food scene in places like Casperia Vs south Wales in a blog four years ago… Welsh Paradores and Sourdough Bread – Mark Barry (swalesmetroprof.blog)

Travel in Rome was also easy, we downloaded the local Travel App and bought a 3-day pass (for just 18 Euro) that worked on bus, tram and local regional rail.  Enabling easy access via pricing and ticketing to public transport services is the most important thing we can do to encourage people onto public transport – and will feature in our Metro plans in Wales despite the challenges of a deregulated bus ecosystem. My Metro blog is worth a read for background on Metro development across Wales!

Something else that was very apparent in Rome and Lyon, and to a lesser extent Basel, was the number of e-bikes and e-scooters in use, as well as more traditional bike hire schemes like we have seen in Cardiff.  These e-bikes/scooters are clearly very popular and are having an impact on people’s sustainable mobility choices.  We have to find a way in Wales and especially in places like Cardiff, Newport and Swansea to introduce this option.

When it comes to travel information, I found myself more often than not, using Google – it worked really well especially for local buses and trains. Not sure one would ever, in normal circumstances, need to use a local app for local rail/bus (apart from to buy tickets if there is no cashpoint-based tap and go available).  I also used the Interrail travel app to plan our trip which was also pretty good.

However, I did find later on our trip from Geneve to Lyon, Google can fail (at least at the moment) when there is disruption, or a rail strike and services are cancelled.  Seems much of  the information on Google is drawn from standard timetables and not real time service data feeds.  In those more unpredictable circumstances, one needs to use operator and/or regional travel agency websites and apps.

For example, because of a rail strike, instead of getting a direct train from Geneva to Lyon, we ended up on a busy train to  Bellegarde and had to get a rail/bus replacement for the final 100Km to Lyon.  Google was left floundering and local sources were required and which, I have to say, worked pretty well. 

So, we got to Lyon– albeit a little later than planned.  The final local bus from Lyon Part Dieu station to our hotel was easy; the google app showed me the service and the way and  using our cash point cards at the “Pay as you Go” (PAYG) point on the bus was really easy.  We didn’t have to worry about a ticket or an app (which we did in Rome), just a swipe of our bank cards and we were on our way.

Figure 9 Google Travel Info in Lyon from Lyon Part Dieu

This all followed the earlier incident with a Salami slice in an otherwise pristine Geneva station.  On disembarking our train from Brig (which was almost empty) we made our way through Geneva station to a bar; en route and in full backpack mode I slipped on a piece of Salami and nearly broke my ankle (maybe I am being a little dramatic).  Bizarrely, 30 minutes later as we were running to catch a local train, just behind me, my wife shouted, “Jesus wept, I’ve just slipped on the same piece of f**** salami”, as she encountered the same piece of salami!   Come on Geneva sort it out!

After the rail/bus replacement trip, we then spent a couple of days in Lyon. This is a most impressive city with grand planned streets in the centre, with 9/10 story buildings on each side, squares, river walks and perhaps most important people living in the city centre (like Rome, like most European cities in fact).  Public transport is so, so easy; just use your cash point card as all modes use a capped “Pay as You” go system.  Networks are clear, joined up – rail, bus, tram, regional rail and High-Speed rail.  The population density again securing higher local demand for PT and more efficient operations.  In fact, Lyon and Rome were very busy with buses, trains and trams all full.  In Lyon one could feel the more lowly status of the car in the city centre with much pedestrianisation, active travel and public transport priority, and where cars are allowed, they were constrained.

The information systems at most stations we visited, and via the operator apps, were also very impressive (notwithstanding my Google comments above).  From telling you where to stand on platforms, to the combined information across all modes and services at stations. In fact, the SNCF web site has a page for each station where you can flip between regional and long-distance rail departures/arrivals to one displaying local bus/tram arrival/departure information.  At most main stations there is an arrival/departure board also displaying local tram and bus service information to complement the rail information boards. It just felt much easier than we have become accustomed to in much of the UK.

Figure 10 SNCF Station Information

Stations in most cases were also destinations.  One evening, on our return leg, we had an early evening trip to Mercato Centrale at Rome Termini station (one of a number at Italy’s main cities with most, apart from Turin, near railway stations); so much good local food and produce.  Clearly a decision made to source and procure locally is at the heart of the concept.  Whilst that takes more effort, the results are clearly much better and locally relevant Vs much in the UK where we get so many Facilities Management deals with chains like Greggs, Pret a Manger and Costa.  

Seems to me Cardiff/Metro Central needs a proactive local procurement policy – and we have organisations who could step up, remember Milk and Sugar by Cardiff Central, Cardiff Street Food Market, etc; in fact, the redevelopment of Newport Market is also a good template. I would also add that despite the excellent European rail services we used, the best food I have had on a train recently is still on the Cardiff-Holyhead service!

There is also a parallel with Cardiff at Lyon Pard Dieu (albeit Lyon probably handles at least 2-3 times more passengers than Cardiff Central) in that its going through a major transformation and adjacent development.  It is needed, especially access to platforms and  platform capacity. See Lyon Part-Dieu Railway Station | Lyon Part-Dieu (lyon-partdieu.com)

PS- I also observed, that in most cases on local buses and trains, that the drivers did not deal with fares and/or tickets; nor were there “guards” or “conductors”. People were expected to pay or have authority to travel arranged before boarding (or validated on-board via bank card / smart card tap and go readers). There were also very few gate lines at stations? Seems revenue protection is based on specific staff “roving the networks” ready to dish out high fines to transgressors. In south Wales we still have the legacy of “guards” on trains (even on the new tram-trains – which we don’t really need!) and costly gate lines – both of which tie up resources/costs which could be used, for example, to staff stations, etc. Similarly bus dwell times could be vastly improved in this part of world if drivers were not engaged in ticket transactions at every stop (as well as more bus lanes!) – the journey time savings and operational efficiency benefits could be significant! Finally, nearly everywhere offered turn up and go services of at least 4 buses/trams/trains per hour, generally as part of connected grid (and not radial hub/spoke networks) – and at the heart of these networks was a high-capacity rail or light rail/metro backbone that local buses connected to…see my explanation of grids in this transport planning blog .

The French TGV network is also impressive (as was the Frecciarossa from Milan to Rome).  It is possible to get to Lille and Eurostar services to London, without going into Paris via a bypass that also serves Charles De Gaul airport. Three hours to cover the 600Km from Lyon to Lille is frankly amazing; at that average speed Cardiff to London could be an hour! Instead,  we have slower, but pretty good GWR services that dump you in Paddington after 1 hour 50 mins, which then requires a trek across central London to St Pancras International. 

Figure 11 TGV Service Information

At the very  least HS1 and HS2 should be linked so that through HS services can operate from other parts of the UK, including from the GWML via Old Oak Common.  This was one of the original  features promised for the Channel tunnel. Whilst in Europe one can go direct from Paris to Milan and soon further, we in the UK are stuck with a network lacking capacity and vision and seems in no way joined up. At least in Wales we now know what we want, we are just not empowered to deliver it under the current constitutional arrangements in the UK.

As a comparator, one can’t ignore the more devolved control and funding arrangements for transport in France – with more local powers/decision making than in the UK. Lyon would not have its impressive transport services and network without such local control, funding and accountability.  Makes me angry (again) at the overcentralised bureaucracy of Westminster, Whitehall and the Treasury which stymies so much possibility across the UK, especially in Wales.  I know Andy Burnham wants more power and control over transport in Greater Manchester (similar population to Greater Lyon). I agree, and in Wales, we absolutely need full powers and funding via the Welsh Government (and all NR English spend, HS2 etc defined by HMT as “England only” as I explained in this blog)

For too long capital spending per capita in London and the SE of England has outstripped everywhere else in the UK.   This is important (and I have made the point in other blogs) as I oft hear some politicians say, “we get higher subsidies for rail services in Wales” as if that was a closing argument!  Yes this is true, but is as a direct consequence of decades of depreciation of the underlying asset Vs the rest of the UK network.  If you don’t invest in your network to expand capacity, reduce journey times and improve reliability (as has happened elsewhere in UK, esp. London and SE England) your operations become less efficient, more costly and so attract fewer passengers Vs those parts of the network that have been in receipt of such investment.  The impact, yes, subsidies go up and the “case for investment” for enhancement appears weaker Vs those places on the investment conveyor belt – especially when all such decision are centralised at Whitehall!.

It seems to me that too many people, including some politicians, lack understanding of the long-term link between capital investment and operational efficiency and demand.  This is also true of the wider economy – if you let places wither on the vine then over time your welfare costs go up…Doh!

So, there is much to learn from Europe and so much for us to do – including in Wales.  The key things for me, which really re-enforce the views I have articulated over recent years, is that  we need action on the following key points:

  • In our main urban areas, we have to  design our public transport as a single joined-up system using multi-modal grids with good interchange – as I described in an earlier article – it is more efficient and provides more service coverage for more people, more efficiently. This is what the WG/TfW Metro Programmes are beginning to shape and develop.  We also need joined up integrated fares/ticketing and easy to use tap on (and tap off) “Pay as you Go” (PAYG) using cash point cards. It is so much easier and removes one of the major barriers to public transport use – the often-complex purchase of tickets

  • Information systems need to reflect the pre-eminence of the global capability of the likes of Google – we need to ensure it has real time service/operational information.  Local based apps/web information sources need to add value

  • Lyon and Basel were full of bike lanes (less so Rome) and people used them; we also need to look again at e-bikes and e-scooter – again widely used in all three cities

Finally. In chatting with people we met along the way, the view of most was of sadness, incredulity, schadenfreude and amusement at the UKs fall. We “took back control” (whatever that means), smashed the furniture and set fire to the house. Britain is becoming a small sad little place.  Brexit is, was and forever will be a small minded intellectually compromised proposition….I hate it even more after this trip.

I have added some further random pictures below……

Figure 12 Early start from Cardiff on 10th October

Figure 13 Gard Est Paris

Figure 14 Basel Station

Figure 15 Basel Station

Figure 16 New hats in Testaccio Market in Rome

Figure 17 Streetscape in Rome (nr Testaccio Market)

Figure 18 Gentle Density in Rome

Figure 19 Urban grit and cars in Rome

Figure 20 Lunch in Poggio Catino

Figure 21 The family in Casperia

Figure 22 Life in Casperia

Figure 23 Views from Casperia

Figure 24 Views from Casperia

Figure 25 Views from Casperia

Figure 26 La Torretta B&B Casperia

Figure 27 Mercato Centrale Termini Station

Figure 28 Mercato Centrale Termini Station

Figure 29 Mercato Centrale at Termini Station

Figure 30 Buses, trams and taxis outside Geneva Station

Figure 31 Buses, trams and taxis outside Geneva Station

Figure 32 Buses and trams connect at Brig Station

Figure 33 Streetscape in Lyon

Figure 34 Streetscape in Lyon

Figure 35 Trolley Bus in Lyon – with some adds for “contactless travel”

Figure 36 Streetscape in Lyon

Figure 37 Streetscape in Lyon


[i]       Frequently asked questions on EFTA, the EEA, EFTA membership and Brexit | European Free Trade Association

[ii]      Brexit analysis – Office for Budget Responsibility (obr.uk)

[iii]      Chart: The Consequences Of The UK’s Brexit Strategy | Statista

One thought on “To Rome and back by train…

  1. Interesting + informative post – must have been a great trip. You wrote you used Google for travel information – if you have an Android phone, do you know the Oeffi app? I use it at home in Germany and on voyages in other countries. I haven’t tested it in the UK, though.
    And: No adds 😉https://oeffi.schildbach.de/index.html

    Like

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