Last of the classic train ferries: A round trip with the Rosalia

The Rosalia at Messina

The Rosalia at Messina

In Northern Europe the train ferry is under threat. The scene surveyed by P. Ransome-Wallis in his masterful book Train Ferries of Western Europe at the end of the 1960s has been decimated by apathy and fixed links. Several remain, but even the best of these, the Puttgarden-Rødby link, is threatened by the proposed Fehmarn Belt bridge.

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 Korsør-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 Malmö-Berlin ‘Berlin Night Express’ which travels via the Scandlines service between Sassnitz and Trelleborg.

The London-Paris/Brussels 'Night Ferry' being loaded onto the Vortigern in Dover

The London-Paris/Brussels 'Night Ferry' being loaded onto the Vortigern in Dover

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.

At Messina Centrale, waiting to be loaded onto the ferry

At Messina Centrale, waiting to be loaded onto the ferry

The late running 'Freccia della Laguna' from Venice

The late running 'Freccia della Laguna' from Venice

Once on board, passengers are free to disembark the train and head above decks

Once on board, passengers are free to disembark the train and head above decks

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.

Stairwell leading up to the main passenger accommodation.

Stairwell leading up to the main passenger accommodation.

The car deck - on either side are the side lounges, of which only the port side remains in use

The car deck - on either side are the side lounges, of which only the port side remains in use

Side lounge, complete with classic railway-style luggage racks

Side lounge, complete with classic railway-style luggage racks

The former First Class lounge

The former First Class lounge

The former First Class lounge

The former First Class lounge

The former First Class lounge

The former First Class lounge

The cafeteria seating area amidships is now almost always closed off

The cafeteria seating area amidships is now almost always closed off

The cafeteria servery

The cafeteria servery

Aft of the cafeteria seating is this bar area

Aft of the cafeteria seating is this bar area


Aft again is the first of the former Second Class saloons

Aft again is the first of the former Second Class saloons

Looking forward from the aft saloon

Looking forward from the aft saloon

The aft former Second Class lounge

The aft former Second Class lounge

The aft former Second Class lounge

The aft former Second Class lounge

The aft former Second Class lounge

The aft former Second Class lounge


Out on deck - the port side promenade

Out on deck - the port side promenade

The forward outside deck with bench seating

The forward outside deck with bench seating

Overlooking the bow at the Messina terminal

Overlooking the bow at the Messina terminal

The entrance to the former First Class lounge, unusually open on this crossing

The entrance to the former First Class lounge, unusually open on this crossing

The starboard promenade deck

The starboard promenade deck

The top deck

The top deck


Corsica Ferries' troubled Mega Express Five at the Palumbo shipyards, Messina. With the shipyard seemingly incapable of finishing the conversion, the ship was later towed to Genoa for completion.

From the Rosalia, Corsica Ferries' troubled Mega Express Five could be seen at the Palumbo shipyard. With the yard seemingly incapable of finishing the conversion, the ship was later towed to Genoa for completion.

The sunken wreck of the old train ferry the Cariddi, near the Messina car ferry berths. Built in 1932, the ship served the FS for 60 years before being sold for use as a museum ship. Ultimately abandoned, she was lost in 2006.

The sunken wreck of the old train ferry the Cariddi, near the Messina car ferry berths. Built in 1932, the ship served the FS for 60 years before being sold for use as a museum ship. Ultimately abandoned, she was lost in 2006.

The statue of the Virgin Mary at the entrance to Messina port

The statue of the Virgin Mary at the entrance to Messina port

Passengers out on deck as the ship crosses to Villa San Giovanni

Passengers out on deck as the ship crosses to Villa San Giovanni

Down at the car deck level, looking forward

Down at the car deck level, looking forward

The ship's bell

The ship's bell

And the builder's plate

And the builder's plate

Passing the Rosalia's fleetmate the Reggio, originally the Superflex Golf

Passing the Rosalia's fleetmate the Reggio, originally the Superflex Golf

Arriving at Villa San Giovanni, the Iginia is loading on one of the other berths

Arriving at Villa San Giovanni, the Iginia is loading on one of the other berths

As soon as the ship began moving onto the berth, all the train passengers disappeared back downstairs, leaving the ship near-deserted

As soon as the ship began moving onto the berth, all the train passengers disappeared back downstairs, leaving the ship near-deserted

The departure of the Iginia

The departure of the Iginia

The Rosalia unloading

The Rosalia unloading

The loading ramps and, beyond, marshalling yards at Villa San Giovanni. In general the train ferry facilities at either end of the 30-minute crossing are sadly run-down

The loading ramps and, beyond, marshalling yards at Villa San Giovanni. In general the train ferry facilities at either end of the 30-minute crossing are sadly run-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.

The all-but abandoned passenger walkways leading to the train ferry berths at Villa San Giovanni.

The all-but abandoned passenger walkways leading to the train ferry berths at Villa San Giovanni.


The Rosalia arrives from Messina

The Rosalia arrives from Messina


Evidently there's a 'technical problem' for the crew as the ship approaches the berth...

Evidently there's a 'technical problem' for the crew as the ship approaches the berth...

Edging up to the berth

Edging up to the berth

The ramp's ready, but the ship is not.

The ramp's ready, but the ship is not.

Tired of waiting, those foot passengers who have chosen to disembark via the train deck jump onto the linkspan and off over the side as the crew continues to resolve the berthing issue

Tired of waiting, those foot passengers who have chosen to disembark via the train deck, jump onto the linkspan and off over the side as the crew continues to resolve the berthing issue


All sorted

All sorted

On board again - the ship's funnel

On board again - the ship's funnel

To Messina!

To Messina!

Arriving at Messina - the Iginia is on the adjacent berth

Arriving at Messina - the Iginia is on the adjacent berth

Disembarking via the train deck - this picture taken as the ship approaches the berth

Disembarking via the train deck - this picture taken as the ship approaches the berth


Doesn't that sign say No Smoking? ;)

Doesn't that sign say No Smoking? ;)

Lowering the ramp seems to present less of a problem this time

Lowering the ramp seems to present less of a problem this time

I suppose that's what the wooden piles are there for...

I suppose that's what the wooden piles are there for...

All clear!

All clear!

The berth just vacated by the Iginia (in the background)

The berth just vacated by the Iginia (in the background)


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.
The main hall of Messina's Stazione Marittima

The main hall of Messina's Stazione Marittima

Detail of the mural, showing Mussolini

Detail of the mural, showing Mussolini

The booking hall, downstairs

The booking hall, downstairs

Messina Marittima

Messina Marittima

The Rosalia

The Rosalia

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.

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