Rome-Milan, city centre to city centre, in only three hours? Comfortable, brand new regional trains which run on time? Smart new stations with deluxe facilities? If all that sounds like a commuters mirage, think again. After many years of neglect and inertia, Italian state railways (Ferrovie dello Stato, or FS) finally seem determined to turn these dreams into reality.

In a meeting with the press, when FS presented an update of its ten-year plan for modernisation and expansion, its president Giancarlo Cimoli painted a rosy picture of what rail transportation in Italy could become in the not-too-distant future. The companys aim, he said, is to double the present number of passengers (474 million) carried each year, as well as the 87 million tonnes of freight transported annually by rail in Italy. He believes that better service and a more efficient network could wean Italians away from their cars and capture the lions share of the lucrative goods transportation market. We want to get the traffic off the roads and onto the rails, he said. This is how I see the future of transportation in Italy.

The FS master plan is both bold and costly. It envisages a web of new or updated rail tracks, new stations both in and outside cities freight stations and depots with easy access to ports and highways, plus a network of super-fast trains flashing the length of the peninsula.

The renewal process actually started in 1996, when Cimoli, a tough and seasoned captain of industry, was appointed the daunting task of transforming the antiquated and cumbersome national railway company into a transportation business more suited to 21st-century expectations. The result of radical and sometimes drastic internal restructuring is a modern holding company, in which each component functions independently.

With EU rail privatisation looming large on the horizon, FS cannot afford to lag too far behind its European neighbours, and big money is now being spent in an attempt to keep it in the running. In the last two years, FS has become Italys biggest industry investor, surpassing giants like ENEL (the national electricity network) and Telecom Italia. The present ten-year redevelopment project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2005, will absorb a total investment of over 50 billion.

However, not everyone believes that this is money well spent. Legambiente, Italys leading environment protection organisation, complains that too large a proportion of the funding is being used to develop the new TAV (Treno Alta Velocit), or high-speed system. In a critical transport report of 2001, Legambiente stressed the disadvantages of the project, citing the excessive cost involved and the damage being done to the environment. The report came down heavily against the construction work on the Bologna-Florence line which, it said, is five years behind schedule and will cost three times more than originally estimated: 50 million per kilometre for 78 km of track and a delivery date postponed till 2007, it states. All this to save 30 minutes on the present line.

Environmentalists believe more funding should be used to make improvements to existing lines and services, in an effort to overcome what they describe as the abysmal difference between Italy and the rest of Europe.

Cimoli admits that the TAV development has been slower and costlier than anticipated, but this, he says, is due to circumstances outside the railways control.

Hold-ups are a particular problem in Italy, due to the nature of the terrain. The Apennine mountain chain cuts the country in half, creating all sorts of problems. Delays in completion of the Rome-Naples line have been largely due to the discovery of archaeological remains near Formia, he says. Whats more, in Italy it takes an average of six years to get the authorisation to build a TAV line. This obviously increases construction costs enormously.

If all goes according to the ten-year plan, the TAV network will eventually link Turin, Milan, Bologna, Florence, Rome and Naples. One thing is certain: when it is completed, it will be a spectacular engineering feat. The 540 km of tracks will cross 132 bridges and viaducts and cut through 115 km of tunnels, including the record-breaking and controversial 54-km gallery on the Bologna-Florence line, which has also been delayed due to infiltration from the underlying water table and subsequent pollution problems.

However, FS firmly believes that the TAV network is the cornerstone of future rail development, and that high-speed trains will eventually make domestic air travel obsolete.

The Paris-Brussels flight has been withdrawn because the present rail service connecting these cities is quicker than flying, Cimoli declares. Rome-Milan could become a three-hour journey, city centre to city centre. Id like a really frequent service trains running every 20 minutes or half hour. At that point, we would beat the plane.

Plans for stations include the new TAV terminal at S. Maria Novella in Florence, which will be entirely situated underground. In February, the winning design a revolutionary glass dome conceived by Manchester-born architect Norman Foster was presented to the public by the city of Florence. Construction work is scheduled to start in 2005 and will take four years.

Until grander plans are completed, rail travellers in Italy will have to content themselves with improvements like the introduction of on-line booking and automated ticketing, as well as smarter and more efficient stations. And one advantage they currently enjoy is rail fares, which are among the lowest in Europe. We can only hope this is one thing that will not change.

Picture: Norman Fosters revolutionary design for the high-speed

train terminal in Florence.