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Italian State Railways

Italian Railroad mapCavour, the statesman of the unification, foresaw that a greater problem than expelling the hated Austrians would be that of adequately connecting North and South Italy, so far apart geographically, racially and economically; he foresaw that a united nation in such a narrow and extended peninsula was dependent upon the proper development of transportation.

Originally the principal cities were fed by small, inefficient, separately owned lines. Prior to 1870, Italian railways were operated by private companies. At this time, as an aid to the unification of Italy and for the more specific purpose of shutting out Austrian capitalists, the government began buying up certain northern lines. By 1885 a majority of all Italian roads had been so taken over. In 1885 at a meeting of railway officials — the Conference of Genala — the railways were organized into two large units with natural and exclusive territories. Dissatisfaction led the state to charter four private companies to take over the entire rolling stock upon an agreed valuation, the state retaining title to the lines, and to divide the revenues accruing with the government. The state reserved the power to fix rates and supervise the system. Leases were granted for sixty years, either party having power to terminate the same after twenty or forty years.

The period of governmental regulation properly dates from 1902, when the first important strike took place. At that time the Government intervened to support the demands of the unionists, and from then on imposed regulations and determined or modified rates. One of the few salutary instances was the establishing of a special tariff for fruit products from the south.

Italian railways served two purposes. In the first place they fused and consolidated the fragments of the nation into one harmonious whole, and secondly, they gave a stimulus, in regard to local traffic, to the trade and industry of the country. Regarded in this first point of view, they linked Piedmont with Lombardy and Venetia, and these again with the southern provinces, so that the citizens of Naples and Otranto could recognise the national tie which made them the countrymen of the Milanese and Venetians. It is not too much to say that if it were not for the introduction of railways, Italian unity would be still as much the dream of enthusiastic patriots as it was in the days of Dante.

In 1905, marking the close of the first twenty-year period, a bill was passed by which all the railroads of the state were nationalized. This action appears to have been based on the allegation that the modern social and industrial conditions demanded that the state administer the entire railway system. The movement was fostered by the socialists on the ground that labor conditions would be improved under state control.

Before that time, the railways, although for the greater part belonging to the State, were worked by three private companies, the "Mediterranean", the "Adriatic" and the "Sicilian" R.R. Cos. The interests of these companies were different from those of the State. Each company worked its system with the object of getting the largest revenue with the smallest expenditure; therefore, tariffs were kept at the highest rate allowed by law, trains were slow and barely sufficient for the local needs, the rolling stock was old and not kept in good repair, and the personnel was under-paid and dissatisfied. Thus, both the public and the personnel had continual grievances against the railway companies. Strikes and systematic hindrance to the service — or "ostruzionismo" that is, literal application of byrules, by which there was great delay in the running of trains — were becoming alarmingly frequent. Parliament protested; several Ministers had to resign; and in 1905, when the contracts with the private companies expired, they were not renewed.

It was feared at the beginning that Parliament (which in Italy meddles even with the stopping of express trains at unimportant stations, or with transferring a "shunter" from one yard to another because he might belong to an opposing electoral party) would be a cause of great difficulties, if not of the utter failure of State management of railways. So the whole Nation was very anxious about the results of the new administration.

The State took over the control of all its own railways, and of a few other private lines necessary for the public interests. This was a daring act and was especially risky from a financial point of view. Happily the Government was very lucky in securing the services of a most competent specialist in railway administration, in the person of Comm. Riccardo Bianchi. formerly General Manager of the Sicilian Railways, who was given sufficient liberty of action to meet the many and serious difficulties which had to be overcome. The State administration, under the guidance of its able president, was brought rapidly to a very satisfactory point. The lines were put in good working order by renewing the permanent way, doubling many trunk lines and sidings, and improving the stations and workshops. Then the rolling stock was renewed and augmented, more and faster trains were run on the main lines, and third-class carriages were attached to all trains. The tariffs, also, were rearranged, in order to facilitate the transportation of agricultural products for long distances, and a "differential tariff" for passengers also was started, by which the rates per mile diminish rapidly with the increase of the length of journey.

After ten years of State railway management, the improvements for the public had been so marked, that no one would wish to return to the old regime of private control. Many regions of Italy, especially in the South, were still very backward up to some years earlier; agriculture was very rudimental and the population poor and ignorant. The construction of State railways was a national duty, in order to bring moral and material progress into those regions, regardless of high cost of the lines, which were very difficult to build owing to mountains, ravines and malarial zones. Thanks to this provident policy, the State railways, with their "differential tariffs", have cemented the political unity of Italy and have given an enormous impetus to commerce. By making the communication easy between the northern and southern provinces, and by charging very low rates, the exchange of the agricultural and industrial products of the respective regions has developed rapidly, and the progress has increased more rapidly still, since the principal railways came entirely under State control. There had been, undoubtedly, a marked improvement in trade all over Italy and a better understanding and good feeling between the people of the different regions of the Peninsula.

By the time of the Great War the railways of Italy could be divided into two systems: Principal Lines, owned and worked by the State, and measuring a total of about 13,500 kilometers (8,400 miles); and Secondary Lines, owned and worked by many independent private companies, measuring about 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles). The latter act as feeders for the principal lines and were of great benefit to the public, as they reach places in the mountains where, the traffic being very small, an ordinary line could not run at a profit.

Except on some mountain lines which were of narrow gauge, Italian railways were of the "normal gauge", of 1.445 meters (4 ft. 8 in-), adopted all over Europe, except only in Spain and Russia. Italy being a country generally hilly, and in some parts quite mountainous, railways are costly to construct—as tunnels, viaducts and important bridges were very numerous. They were also very costly to work, owing to heavy gradients — up to 1 in 40 and in a few cases even 1 in 28 — and to the fact that all the coal is imported, mainly from England and in smaller quantities from Germany and America. On the other hand, the revenue is rather low, as in Italy there are no great mines nor forests, and the goods traffic consists principally of agricultural products, which, in general, cannot afford a high tariff. The passenger rates also are very moderate.

The public was certainly well served and the traffic was encouraged very actively; but, on the other hand, the financial situation of Italian railways belonging to the State — and more or less the same can be said of private companies — could not be very flourishing. The result of the high cost of the lines is that the traffic barely pays an interest of 1.6% on the invested capital, and for some private lines there is a deficit; so that the State is obliged to pay annual subsidies of from $1000 to $3000 per mile of line.

Under the last year of private ownership the railroads returned a profit of 64,000,000 lire. This gradually declined to 28,000,000 in 1914, while the year of entrance into the war recorded a deficit of 21,000,000 lire. Owing to the transportation of war supplies, the two subsequent vears showed the apparent benefit to the treasury of 4,000,000,000 and 57,000.000,000 lire, respectively. The post-war years have been featured by an annual deficit of over a billion lire each—the heaviest single charge on the burdened Italian State.

This was partly due to an aggravation of natural difficulties. The elongated shape of the country, together with the widely varying density of population and degrees of development, has created special problems that have never been satisfactorily solved. Furthermore, only 20 per cent, of the national area may be considered level country. The grades of the roadbeds, outside of Lombardy and the Adriatic Delta District, are heavier than those of Switzerland. Even more serious is the lack of native coal and iron deposits, which makes relative economy of operation impossible.

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Page last modified: 15-11-2011 18:54:30 ZULU