A collision between a passenger train and a freight locomotive at Bolognina di Crevalcore near Bologna in mid-January killed 17 people. The accident was Italys worst rail disaster in 25 years and triggered an outcry.

Opposition politicians accused prime minister Silvio Berlusconis government of neglecting safety and failing to modernise the countrys railways. These deaths could have been avoided. Savings cannot be made on measures for railway safety, said Gabrielli Albonetti, transport spokesman for the Democratici di Sinistra (DS) party, immediately after the crash. Rail trade unions agreed and decided somewhat unimaginatively that the best thing to do was stage a couple of national one-day strikes.

The strongest reaction came from the countrys one million rail commuters, perhaps because the tragedy forced them to face an ugly new reality: not only are they paying hard-earned cash to be herded into dirty, standing-room-only trains that take them to work late every day, theyre also risking their lives in the process.

Indeed, users of regional rail services have been in a rebellious mood since the accident. Groups of commuters twice occupied stations near Milan in January: once at the town of Vignate because a train failed to show up, the second time at Vittuone because a train was too packed for people to board. The protests blocked dozens of trains on both occasions, causing havoc. These were followed by a number of passenger ticket strikes where people in different parts of the country travelled without buying tickets on the Milan-Turin line up north and the Rome-Velletri line in Lazio.

The protests won the commuters a number of concessions: extra carriages on certain routes, some extra services and the right to board intercity trains for a small surcharge. But more importantly, they have put the state of the countrys rail network on to the political agenda.

After the Bolognina di Crevalcore disaster, the government defended itself with claims that safety funds have increased by 250 per cent since 1999. It also announced that it will set up an authority to monitor security on the countrys rail network within the next three months.

Italys national rail operator, Trenitalia, has pointed out that its network has excellent safety standards compared to road transport and respectable ones in relation to other nations railways. For example, according to European Commission figures, there were nine deaths involving Italian trains in 2003, compared to 10 in the United Kingdom and 23 in Germany. In 2000, the respective figures were eight fatalities in Italy, 20 in the UK and 38 in Germany. In Italy, rail accidents have claimed 148 lives in the past ten years, compared to the 60,000 people killed in road accidents during the same period.

Trenitalia has also stressed that its Eurostar services connecting Italys major cities are fast, clean and relatively cheap which just heightens the contrast with the commuter lines where the rolling stock is in a shocking state and services are simply inadequate. Trade unions also claim the railways are short-staffed, with the Filt-Cgil transport-workers union claiming that the last time a new engine driver was hired in Rome was back in 1987. The groups say shortages are especially acute in maintenance departments.

The sorry story makes ambitious public projects planned by the Berlusconi administration such as the bridge across the Strait of Messina, between mainland Italy and Sicily look out of touch with reality. Before talking about projects fit for the pharaohs, the basic railway system needs sorting out, said Marco Rizzo of the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (PCI).

One of the biggest problems is that many sections of the rail network are single-track. This makes running services efficiently doubly difficult and compromises safety, as trains going in both directions use the same tracks. Indeed, the Bolognina di Crevalcore accident happened on a single-track stretch of the Verona-Bologna line. At the time of writing the accident inquirys results had not been published, but the cause is expected to be human error investigators believe the driver of the passenger train may have failed to see a red light because of fog. Human error cannot be completely eliminated, although double-track lines do reduce risks. Whats more, the accident line was one of many sections without the high-tech Scmt control system, which stops trains automatically if they pass a red light.

The transport minister, Pietro Lunardi, has since asked Trenitalia to step up moves to equip the entire rail network with the Scmt system. So far, it has been installed on 3,000 km of track. By 2007, it should be installed on a total of 10,500 km, which includes 4,300 km of single-track and incorporates the Verona-Bologna line. The train company also says it will spend almost 10 billion on the railway network over the next three years more than any other railway in Europe.

Nevertheless, even Trenitalia admits that investment has not kept up with rising demand over the past ten years and that the problems will not be resolved in the near future. The system is at full stretch. In Milan all it takes is three carriages to break and the network starts to splutter, said Elio Catania of Ferrovie dello Stato, the firm that manages the network and owns Trenitalia. Well have to work hard for at least two years in order to turn the corner.