Italy’s rail wars have become a litmus test for efforts to inject more dynamism into ailing European economies. For Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV), the company that operates Italo trains, the results so far have been tragicomic, a reminder of how hard it can be to wrest power from state-run companies — a process that economists say is essential to putting the continent on firmer ground.
“They were going to treat us like the enemy,” Paolo Ripa, NTV’s chief operating officer, said of Ferrovie Dello Stato Italiene, Italy’s national rail giant, which was founded in 1905.
In Rome’s Ostiense station, for example, a six-foot-tall fence was erected without warning one night last year — in front of Italo’s new customer center and only two weeks before the high-speed service was to launch. A Ferrovie subsidiary admitted responsibility but said safety was its motive; only later did the company install a gate that restored direct access to the train platform.
“What, someone is going to run out of our ticket office and jump onto the track?” Ripa said. “I don’t think so.” Another company official likened the state-run company’s approach to “many small acts of sabotage.”
‘This is Italy’
Ferrovie was divided more than a decade ago into subsidiaries that operate under the same parent company and whose shares are still held by the Italian state. One subsidiary, Trenitalia, operates trains, including its own high-speed rail service, that directly compete against Italo. Another subsidiary, Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RFI), oversees rail infrastructure, including train stations.
In theory, RFI — the company responsible for what Italo officials decried as the “cage” in the Rome station — is supposed to treat competitors equally. But Italo says that in vital ways, RFI and Trenitalia are still unfairly acting as one.
Some of the tactics, Italo says, have been as silly as putting gloating announcements on state-run trains when Italo’s locomotives are delayed. Others, however, have allegedly been more serious.
Italo says Trenitalia unfairly slashed its prices in an attempt to “squeeze” Italo’s profit margins. Trenitalia, Ripa said, could afford the discounts in part because it enjoys lucrative state contracts that help support its bottom line. Italo also says RFI discriminated against it by strictly limiting its floor space for automated ticket machines in Bologna and Venice.