A special train is to pull out of Romes Termini station in December and launch a revolution in the Italian railway system, today regarded by Italian railway operators as stuck in the stone age.

An ITR-500 Eurostar will streak towards Naples on Monday 12 December on a custom-built high-speed track, thus opening the first segment of a network meant eventually to embrace all of Italy.

High-speed trials on the Rome-Naples run have so far touched a top speed of 348 km per hour and initially the trip will take 1 hr 20 min as against the 1 hr 45 min taken by trains at present. By 2008 the Rome-Naples run should be cut down to 1 hr flat. That should happen when two small stretches at either end of the 204 km route at present running along conventional track go high-speed as well.

Initially, the high-speed train or Treno Alta Velocit (TAV) will trundle for 10 km to the south-east of Rome along a regional line (the FR 2) as far as the small station of Salone (close to a major refugee camp) where the newly-laid track begins at present. Fast track is now being put in alongside the existing line and the TAVs are expected to switch over to it within a year. At the Naples end, the TAVs will trespass on the last 18 km of the Formia-Naples line before slinking into Napoli Centrale until, that is, they get a line of their own.

The spokespeople at the TAV head offices, opposite the old Peroni brewery near Piazza Fiume in Rome, pointed out that the route of the new line was engineered to run almost parallel to the Rome-Naples A1 motorway to cut down extra environmental damage to a minimum.

However, as TAVs Luciano Avagliano explained, the route also kept close company with the old Naples line via Cassino; this was because the TAV system was not meant to substitute existing routes but to put them to a new and fuller use by ridding them of long-medium haul trains. In this way the old routes will be able to concentrate on local and commuter traffic instead. At the same time, the new line will dovetail into the old ones to feed them extra passengers through so-called interconnections.

The Rome-Naples line, for instance, will provide four such link-ups at Frossinone, Cassino, Caserta and then at Gricignano near Naples where a special turn-off line has sparked off a local scandal with question marks over its usefulness and outrage over the cost of the project. Was it really needed? When would it get its station? Was it doomed to be yet another of the souths unfinished and useless projects?

Work was started on the line way back in 1994, but already by 1996, parliaments anti-mafia commission had reported involvement of both the Neapolitan camorra and the Sicilian mafia in the project. Avagliano sidestepped the issue, ascribing delays firstly to the eruption of protests among the 61 townships the line was to pass through or tunnel under; and secondly to the proliferation of archaeological finds stumbled upon while digging out the lines bed 149 of them. As Avagliano recorded, everything had had to be excavated with care, catalogued and in many cases brought back to life for good, such as a complex Roman villa at Corcolle, off the A1 south of Hadrians Villa at Tivoli. A stretch of Roman road, the Collatina, just outside Rome, was removed with laser techniques and transferred to a new home nearby.

Then, with the lines themselves completed, both Rome and Naples will be fitted with new stations. Italian architect Paolo Desideri has redesigned Stazione Tiburtina, which will become a kind of great glass boulevard suspended above the platforms, as doubtless befits what is to become Romes main exchange-station for the future. A year after the completion of the last 18 km of the line going into Naples (no completion date has been given) a new station conceived by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid is to take shape at Afragola outside Naples.

A big technical novelty is that the new line will toll the death knell for the old railway signal lights. Between Rome and Naples a new pan-European system will receive its European baptism. Called ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System), it depends on a central brain that sends automatic radio commands to every TAV on the move, dictating its speed and conduct.

The Rome-Naples stretch marks the last leg of the backbone of the TAV system running from Turin to Naples, via Milan, which is due to be in place in 2009, when it will take only five hours to do the whole Turin-Naples distance (at present, the Turin-Naples route takes 8 hr 30 min). The Milan-Rome stretch will be down to three hours as opposed to the present 4 hr 15 min.

However it will be 2013 before there will be the addition of a TAV line from Turin to Venice and later still before TAVs begin operating in the tunnels through the Alpine passes into northern Europe.

According to TAVs chief of external relations, Carla Recchi, the new TAV trains will at last help Italy catch up with the rest of continental Europe in the transport field after trailing behind it for decades. However, it is still a guess when the TAVs will reach the distant Bari, Reggio Calabria and Palermo with delights of the modern age.

Tickets prices and frequency of the high-speed trains are yet to be confirmed.