Whilst freight and day trains served as the bread and butter for most train ferries, the real glamour came with the overnight trains which were shunted on board. The most famed of these was perhaps the London-Paris Night Ferry (terminated 1980, well before the opening Channel Tunnel) but there were several others, including sections of the ‘Nord Express’ which allowed passengers to go from Paris as far as Oslo, and the Stockholm-Rome ‘Skandinavien-Italien Express’ which used the Malmo-Copenhagen (Frihavn) and KorsÃ¸r-Nyborg ferries. Today, few glimpses of these former glories remain, as cheaper air travel and faster trains have undermined demand for such services; however remnants can be seen in, for example, the MalmÃ¶-Berlin ‘Berlin Night Express’ which travels via the Scandlines service between Sassnitz and Trelleborg.
In Southern Europe, the train ferry scene has always been rather more limited. Some of the Spanish Trasmed’s early car ferries also had capacity for rail traffic, but that has been pretty much the extent of operations outside Italy. Within the latter country however, the train ferry remains and forms a part of everyday life across the Straits of Messina. Lengthy overnight trains, such as the Venice-Palermo/Syracuse ‘Freccia della Laguna’ or the Rome-Palermo/Syracuse ‘Il Gattopardo’ continue to use the Villa San Giovanni-Messina train ferries as do plenty of other passenger trains through the course of the day.
Transport across the Strait of Messina is provided by one of a fleet of five train ferries, all run by Bluvia, the ferry division of the Ferrovie dello Stato (FS), the Italian State railway. Three of the ships are absolute classics dating from the late 1960s/early 1970s in the Iginia, Sibari and Rosalia, and they run together with the more recent (1980s), and rather less well resolved Scilla and Villa. The train ferries are also available to foot passengers (at a cost of 1 Euro per crossing) and have a dedicated car deck above the train deck; that said, most vehicles and their passengers travel with the conventional ferries provided by both Bluvia and their compeititors, principally the long-established Caronte & Tourist.
In July 2008, with the cloud of the on/off Straits of Messina bridge hanging over the service, we paid a return visit to sail once again on the three classic train ferries, perhaps for the final time. Although the bridge project had been abandoned in 2006, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi had since announced his commitment to re-starting work on the link. Starting in Palermo, fresh from an overnight crossing from Naples on the SNAV Campania (ex-Norstar) we set out on the Palermo-Rome ‘Peloritano’. Taking no less than twelve hours to make the complete journey (and, with accumulated delays, frequently more) this is no longer the appealing prospect it may have been in earlier years. Palermo to Messina across Sicily alone takes over three hours and at Messina Centrale we were shunted together with the half of the train coming from the Southern Sicilian city of Syracuse. A hold up to either part, of course, delays the whole but on this occasion all went well and it was the inbound train which seemed to hinder us slightly. We watched as the ‘Freccia della Laguna’ was hauled past us off our still unidentified ferry before, finally, our voyage resumed and we were hauled out of Messina Centrale, through, without stopping, at Messina Marittima station, and onto the ferry.
The ship turned out to be the Rosalia, the last-built of the classic ships (dating from 1973) and a good indication of the state of the Bluevia train ferry fleet. Truth be told, whether due to inertia caused by the threatened fixed link or lack of will at a central level, the ships are slightly down at heel. In one sense, this has helped preserve them – lack of investment has meant they have simply never received a thorough refit. However it also casts a shadow over everything and local workers have in recent times gone out on strike at the neglect they feel their service gets from the centralised bureaucracy.
The Rosalia’s ‘upstairs’ accommodation matches those of her two sisters: at the level of the car deck, side seating lounges could be found port and starboard (the latter has now been taken out of use for storage). On the main deck above there was originally a First Class lounge forward, two Second Class saloons aft, with catering facilities shared between the two amidships. Today, the First Class section and the cafeteria area are generally closed off and passengers have use of the former Second Class areas and the extensive outside deck space. Throughout, the ship has the pegboard ceilings which are so distinctive of classic Italian shipboard design, from the Michelangelo and Raffaello down.
Having spent an afternoon on the mainland side of the Strait, the return journey to Messina was again to be on the Rosalia. The ship arrived promptly in port, but seemed to be having difficulties in achieving a good fit onto the ramp. After a bit of a struggle, she was finally secured although for this crossing the effort seemed hardly worth it as there were no trains to embark or disembark. In such circumstances, when foot and car passengers are the only patrons, the ships are almost mournfully quiet.
Although generally many of the berthing and loading facilities for the train ferries are showing severe signs of neglect, the fabric of the waiting and booking areas of Messina’s Maritime Station remain in excellent condition. The current station was opened in 1939 and was designed by Antonio Mazzoni in the fascist style. As a centrepiece, the magnificent curved departure hall on the upper level is capped by a huge mural, by Michele Cascella, depicting Mussolini; it is an archetypal propaganda image with Il Duce lifted aloft by bare-chested farm workers, the hero of Italian peasantry.
In many ways the Villa San Giovanni-Messina train ferry has changed little since the 1960s. This makes it a quite unique survivor amongst European ferry operations. How long it can remain so is open to question – the service has clearly been pared down to the bone, perhaps in expectation of a fixed link that will rid the FS of what must be a costly and loss-making operation. That still seems many years away so presumably the existing ferries must be made to continue for the duration. Whilst that is in many ways of course pleasing for the enthusiast, it is troubling to see an operation that was once clearly of a very high quality in such reduced circumstances. With much of the North European train ferry network dismantled however, this is the last, best chance to step back in time and experience things as once they were.
Click here for a video of the ‘Freccia della Laguna’ being shunted off one of the train ferries at Villa San Giovanni.