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The Freccia dell’Elba (the ‘Elba Arrow’) leaves the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella in Florence every morning at 0535. The departure point is a railway masterpiece that ranks highly even amongst the many other fascist-era Italian stations and one could spend many hours just staring around in wonderment.
We have arrived at this early hour to be whisked to Piombino, from where ferries can be caught to the island of Elba. The Freccia dell’Elba is the one daily train which provides a direct service from here to the port station, avoiding the need to change at least once, usually at the little station of Campiglia on the Pisa-Livorno-Rome main line, a couple of hours into the journey. It is at Campiglia that the branch line to Piombino diverges, at first meandering through fields, then sailing through the tiny station which serves the site of the all-but-abandoned Etruscan city of Populonia. Suddenly, this calming vista is interrupted, like a scene from the end times, and the train is surrounded by aged and abandoned heavy industry. These are the industrial ruins of Piombino’s troubled metal industry which, where it survives, continues to belch smoke and dirt and provides a dramatic backdrop to the ferry port.
Soon, we are at Piombino station which appears to be a terminus and, as the conductor, driver and most of the remaining passengers disembark, it is easy to be fooled into thinking this really is the end of the line. The driver is just changing ends, however, and soon we are away again, trundling through the unkempt, weed-strewn branch that leads to Piombino Marittima. Whereas Piombino’s town station has the faded glory look of a village station which probably once had a proud station master, porter, dedicated signalman and a variety of ticket clerks, the port station is an altogether more modern, personnel-free affair. It was constructed in 1991 to replace the quayside tracks after an unfortunate incident in which a train rolled off the quay and into the sea.
The ferry terminal at Piombino stands parallel to the station, overlooking the car loading lanes. Inside, Moby and TOREMAR ticket desks glower at each other in a pretence of rivalry (they are now under common ownership). Tucked into a corner, the one ship service of Blu Navy try gamely to compete with their succession of poorly-chosen one ships. Most people just choose Moby, a carefully-crafted public image and buckets of bright paint more than compensating for a terrifically aged local fleet.
For this crossing we have the thrill of sailing on the oldest of them all, the Moby Baby. Her name is deceptive – completed in 1966 there is a fair chance she will last until her half century. Built for Rederi AB Svea as the Svea Drott, she sailed under the Trave Line name between Helsingborg, Copenhagen (Tuborg) and TravemÃ¼nde. Derived from the design of the Thoresen Vikings, she proved a great success and was replaced in 1974, passing to Sealink for Channel Islands service, first on charter and later as the Earl Godwin. This lasted for 16 further years whereupon she was acquired by Moby for service to Elba – and there she has remained ever since.
Moby’s peak season schedule provides for a departure every hour from either end; for some time now the ships providing this service alongside the ‘Baby’ have been the Moby Ale (ex-Mikkel Mols), Moby Lally (ex-Kalle II) and Moby Love (ex-Saint Eloi) with the Bastia and/or Giraglia in support. The crossing takes one hour, which provides just enough time to avail oneself of a slice of overpriced pizza, quickly explore the ship and watch the passing scenery.
Although never truly an overnight ferry as such, the Moby Baby was certainly designed for longer crossings than this and the cabins beneath the vehicle deck, as well as the restaurant on the upper passenger deck, have been effectively abandoned; the tea bar forward of the restaurant also sees very limited use. The scene is similar on the other ships – although they can all get very busy, passengers tend to head out on deck and hence, even with large saloon areas closed, the ships can generally cope with the loads.
The Moby Baby is a fun little ship to cross in, although she offers few diversions other than the pleasure of being at sea. The acquisition of TOREMAR and the wider group’s involvement in Tirrenia may mean that investment in replacements for Moby’s own brand fleet might be lacking in the next few years. And so, mechanical failures aside, the Moby Baby and her aged fleetmates will have to sail on as part of the sea connection in the Elba Arrow for some time yet.
Recent cuts to the schedules of FS, the Italian state railways, have been quite savage in certain areas; mercifully the Piombino branch line has been preserved, enabling passengers to continue to take the boat train, just as one could to Weymouth in the Earl Godwin’s Sealink heyday.