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CHRISTMAS

Is Italy’s public transport running over Christmas and New Year?

If you're spending key dates over Christmas and New Year in Italy, can you expect to find trains and other transport services operating? Here's what you need to know.

A nun walks past a bus at a public transport station on January 31, 2017 at Piazza Venezia in Rome. Public transport system (Atac) has a bad reputation in Rome where users are complaigning about delays and frequency of the buses.
What public transport services can you expect to find in Italy over the holidays? Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP.

Question: My family are spending the holidays in Italy, and we’re wondering what sort of public transport services will be in place. I know we should expect a reduced timetable, but will some services still be up and running?

At any time of year, the quality and frequency of public transport services in Italy varies significantly between rural and urban areas, as well as between cities.

Areas that are usually poorly served by just the occasional bus could have an even more reduced service over the holidays – and you may well not be able to find out the revised schedule in advance.

That said, parts of the country that already have relatively robust public transport networks tend to keep them fairly active over the Christmas period.

Even on Christmas day itself, you’ll find the tens of high speed and regional trains that provide daily connections between major Italian cities and small towns running pretty much on a standard timetable.

Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP

Local public transport services are somewhat reduced, but don’t shut down entirely, as they do in some parts of the world.

In Rome, all bus, tram and metro services should run as normal on Christmas Eve until 9pm, with night buses kicking in from 11pm; as well as from 8:30am-1pm and 4.30pm-9pm on Christmas day.

On New Year’s Eve, buses and trams are scheduled to run until 9pm and the metro until 2.30am, with a few dedicated bus lines in place to take people to and from metro stops.

READ ALSO: How to make the most of a Christmas break in Rome

In Naples, it’s currently hoped that bus, metro and funicular services will run throughout the day on December 25th and January 1st, with the metro and funicular staying open until 2am on both dates – subject to operator Anm reaching an agreement with workers.

While Italy has been hit with a series of transport strikes over the past few months, there’s not much chance of major strike action being announced over Christmas.

That’s because Italian law bans unions from organising strikes which could impact the air travel sector – so general strikes and transport sector strikes are out – on certain busy travel dates (known as periodi di franchigia, or ‘exemption periods’). These include December 18th to January 7th, as well as much of August.

Some cities haven’t yet released their holiday timetables, but previous years give an indication of what you can expect.

In Milan last year, buses were operational from 7am-7.30pm on Christmas day, with night buses cancelled on the nights of 24th-25th and 25th-26th. New Year’s Eve operated on a Saturday timetable, with night buses running as normal.

Tram in Milan's city centre.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

Bus services in Florence last year ran on a reduced holiday schedule until 1pm on Christmas day, on a normal timetable until 9pm on New Year’s Eve, and operated on a holiday timetable on December 26th and January 1st, 2nd and 6th.

The city’s trams ran on a slightly reduced schedule (every 10 minutes instead of every 5-6 at peak times) on Christmas Eve, Christmas day and New Year’s Eve, but ran until 2am on the three days.

If you’re in Rome over the Christmas period this year, you’re in luck: the city council are expanding the public transport services and have offered several free transport days for the month of December. 

On December 24th, all public transport around the city will be free.

And until January 8th, three new bus lines providing shuttle services from city car parks to the centre – ‘Free 1’, ‘Free 2’ and the 100 service – will also be free.

The move is part of an initiative by mayor Roberto Gualtieri to reduce traffic in the city centre over the busiest parts of the season.

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TRANSPORT

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Sicily may be just a stone’s throw from mainland Italy but getting there and back is not always simple or fast, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

Costly flights, few trains: What’s travel like between Sicily and mainland Italy?

Transport connections between Italy’s largest island region and the main Italian cities are expected to improve in the long run, with the government hoping to use European pandemic recovery funds. But infrastructure investments take years to bear fruit. 

Taking a flight is of course the easiest and quickest way to reach Sicily, where there are three main airports – Palermo, Catania, Trapani – plus two minor ones on the southernmost Pantelleria and Lampedusa islands. But there are mounting ticket costs. 

The recent investigation launched by Italian authorities into alleged price-fixing on flights to and from Sicily during Christmas holidays by many low-cost airlines shows how fliers might have been left with little choice. Unless one is a Sicilian resident with access to privileged fares, the round trip is often costly.

I recently did an online search and found flights to Sicily are still quite expensive, costing roughly 300 euros for a return trip from Rome, even if booked well in advance. And not all Italian airports serve the destination. 

READ ALSO: Trains and planes: Italy’s new international travel routes in 2023

Paradoxically, it is often easier to reach Sicily from a European city such as London or Brussels than from an Italian one, and I often envy foreign friends who quickly find a much cheaper flight than I can from Rome. Others hop on ferry boats in southern France to land in Sicily. 

For those already in Italy, other options are traveling by train or car, which can still be hellish. Even though the A1 autostrada del Sole, the country’s backbone, has been completed, driving down the length of the country takes 12 hours – inclusive of meal and toilet stops – roughly 1,500 kilometers. I did it once, and it is crazy, but it depends on how much one loves driving.

All train connections end in Reggio Calabria or other southern regions, even the high-speed Italo takes 10 hours from Milan to the tip of the boot. The journey by train is less stressful than by car or plane, and costs roughly 280 euros for a round trip from Milan.

Travel to and from Sicily can often turn into a nightmarish odyssey. I’ve spoken to lots of Sicilians and foreigners who often embark on a 24-hour trip to get to Sicily from Rome and Milan. 

I remember once going to Linosa island for the summer holidays and having to take the plane to Palermo, then a long bus ride to Porto Empedocle to catch the midnight ferry, sleeping on a bench and waking up the next morning to stunning volcanic black scenery. I could have taken the plane to sister-isle Lampedusa and then a quick ferry boat, but the air fare was way over my budget. That trip lasted 28 hours, exactly the same amount of time as my past flights to Jakarta from Rome – but with added stress.

The ferry connecting Messina, Sicily with Villa San Giovanni, Calabria. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local

The government aims to revive the Messina bridge plan, an idea which has been floating in the air since 1866. I doubt things would change much. Many people would still drive their cars along the bridge rather than take the ecological high speed railway expected to be built on it.

To improve connections, transport must shift from the road to the railway tracks by increasing high-speed train services, as well as ferries, thus curbing CO2 emissions. High-speed sea connections to and from Naples, Civitavecchia, Livorno and other key mainland ports should also be increased.

READ ALSO: Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

The Messina bridge, which I seriously doubt will be built during this government’s five-year legislature, would just end up increasing road traffic. Locals and tourists in Calabria will be tempted to drive their car or motorino just three kilometers to grab a cassata cake in Messina. 

However, the real issue is not getting to and from Sicily, but getting around Sicily once you land there.

I had the chance to meet several Sicilian commuters who travel almost daily from a rural village to Rome, Naples or Milan for meetings. They wake up at three in the morning and return home at 11pm, up to four times a week. 

Island train and bus connections are rather poor so the car is their best option to get to the airport. However, bar the main highways, most Sicilian roads are a work-in-progress or in bad condition.

You never know where a Sicilian road trip might take you. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I happened to experience an ‘adventurous’ road trip once from Catania airport to a tiny village in the province of Caltanissetta. According to the satellite map it was meant to take roughly two hours, but it turned out to be five, and I literally found myself in the middle of the countryside surrounded by sheep and ravines. Not quite the idyll I had dreamt.

Some highways were shut due to maintenance so I had to cut across unpaved rural roads without street lights, or deviate elsewhere which lengthened my trip (ravenous, I took five minutes to stop for a quick cannolo on the way).

It all depends on what degree of adventure travelers are seeking. Distances seem shorter for some foreigners than they do to Italians. Americans in particular and others from non-European Union countries are excited to drive from Milan to Sicily, for they can catch a glimpse of Italy in its entirety, or tour Sicily’s main archaeological sites in eight hours.

But many others I know, because of the poor state of Sicilian roads and regional connections, prefer to fly in and rent cars with drivers to take them to their destinations. 

The future of Sicily’s transport connections must be affordable and more frequent flights, high-speed railways and eco-friendly boats. Not new bridges and even more cars on the road.

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