’Twixt Scilla and Charybdis – The Messina Crossing
It was not long before a rival appeared, in the guise of the absurdly-named Tourist Ferry Boat, a company founded by the Messina engineer Giuseppe Franzi in 1966. Two ro-ro ferries, imaginatively christened ‘Tourist Ferry Boat Primo’ and ‘Tourist Ferry Boat Secondo’ were ordered from a Greek shipyard and delivered in March 1969. In subsequent years the two companies worked together rather than fought for traffic, and this policy enabled them to introduce progressively larger and more sophisticated craft. They eventually merged as Caronte & Tourist, and today occupy a strong position, not only on the straits, but on local services to the Isole Eolie and offering a very useful and highly competitive (with rail) daily long-distance run between Messina and Salerno, the single fare (low season, deck) in 2006 being just E 15.00 – far cheaper than attempting the same journey using ‘Regionali’ trains! The southbound run is daytime, leaving Salerno at 12.30, passing fairly close to Stromboli, and reaching Messina at 21.00.
FS soon recognised the inadequacies of its own fleet in this sphere of operations; in 1964 the ships carried 395,726 road vehicles. Between 1963 and 1965 ‘Villa’ and ‘Messina’ were rebuilt in order to transport HGVs on the Messina to Reggio crossing. Three new train ferries, ‘Ignia’ (5768 gross tonnes), ‘Sibari (also 5768 gross tonnes) and ‘Rosalia’ (5725 gross tonnes) were ordered in the late 1960s, the first and last from Cantieri Navali Reuniti of Ancona, the second from Castellammare di Stabia, entering service on 26 September 1969, 11 April 1970 and 23 December 1072 respectively. These bow-loading vessels have four rail tracks (43 wagons or 16 carriages) and a low headroom upper deck for up to 95 cars, as well as possessing certificates for 1660 passengers. They were joined by the somewhat less attractive ‘Scilla’ and ‘Villa’ on 6 May and 7 June 1985 respectively. Of similar dimensions, these sisters also have four rail tracks accommodating up to 43 wagons, and certificates for around 1000 passengers.
To cater for HGV traffic, FS also ordered several double-ended ferries with superstructure amidships. First to be acquired, from Riva Trigoso, were ‘Agata’ and ‘Pace’, both of 1131 gross tonnes in 1973 and 1974. These have a capacity of 52 cars or up to 12 lorries with trailers, and certificates for 400 passengers. They were followed by ‘Riace’ and ‘Fata Morgana’ of 2000 gross tonnes in 1983 and 1987. These vessels have three tracks, and are intended especially for the transport of rail tank wagons (safer on an exposed deck than on an enclosed one). Alternatively they can carry 12 lorries with trailers (the Italian ‘autotreni’) or up to 79 cars, and have certificates for 500 passengers. The latest vessel to join the fleet was ‘Enotria’ in 2002. She has a capacity of 300 passengers, and 108 cars or 22 ‘autotreni’.
"The fast Alternative – Aliscafi"
Italy was the birthplace of the passenger-carrying hydrofoil (aliscafo), and its inventor, Leopoldo Rodriquez, ran his own shipyard in Messina.
The hydrofoil concept first saw light of day during the Second World War, when the Austrian engineer Friedrich Lobau built an experimental craft for the German navy and a second one while he was a prisoner of war in Russia. The latter vessel was ingeniously designed to founder during her maiden voyage! After the war Lobau ran out of funds while trying to develop a commercial version of his invention, and was bought out by Rodriquez, who offered him a place on his staff at the Messina shipyard which he and his family had been running for the past half century. However it was not until March 1956 that ‘Freccia del Sole’ made her maiden voyage between Messina and Reggio. Weighing just 49 gross tonnes, thanks to her aluminium hull, she was powered by a 1,350 hp Daimler Benz V12 diesel, which gave her a service speed of nearly 40 knots. Between 1957 and 1961 she was joined by four sisters, and Rodriquez founded a subsidiary company, Aliscafi-SNAV, whose services by the mid-1980s had expanded to embrace the Golfo di Napoli and its islands, the Isole Eolie, and the long run between the latter and Napoli.
Today FS’s infrastructure manager, RFI, operates three 1999-built 500-passenger jetfoils, ‘Segesta Jet’, ‘Selinunte Jet’ and ‘Tindari Jet’ on the Reggio to Messina route, with 14 return crossings daily, and a passage time of 25 minutes.
"The Straits Today"
A trip across the Stretto di Messina today, on board one of the three ‘Ignia’-class vessels, is a time-warp experience, delightful if one is not in a hurry with a tight train connection on the far side, downright frustrating otherwise. The precise sailing times shown in the printed FS timetable, and the connections suggested in the FS on-line timetable, are either a trifle fictitious or possibly over-optimistic.
Unless you desperately want to ‘cover’ the track in the sidings between Villa and the linkspan, and then be shunted back and forth up to four times, it is best to leave a through train to Sicilia at Villa San Giovanni station. Back in June 1983 I made the mistake of staying in my compartment and was ‘trapped’ until we surfaced again at Messina. Descending in the half dark from the carriage, with luggage, onto the messy and stinking train deck of the ferry (in the days of non-retention WCs) was something I did not fancy attempting.
Pedestrians are channelled via the station subway and then via a high, enclosed footbridge over the linkspans, to one of the boarding points. Not an easy trek with luggage. The gangways on the five large bow-loading vessels are situated forward of the superstructure, on the car deck, and are also used for the loading and embarkation of cars (few motorists actually use these vessels). Meanwhile, the train heads off into the marshalling yard, which is situated on the seaward side of the main line, at a slightly lower level. Although the linkspan sidings are electrified, most of the shunting is done by Class D 145 diesels, often with barrier coaches or wagons between themselves and the main line stock. The fact that the vessels are only bow-loading does not influence the time taken to embark or disembark stock, but it does add between five and ten minutes to the passage time (shown as 35 minutes) on account of the need to go astern for a considerable distance on each crossing – especially at Messina, where turning takes place outside the main breakwater.
The ferries offer a sadly run-down and neglected appearance. One only has to look at the general arrangement plans of ‘Ignia’ and her sisters (on the walls in the transverse passageway abaft the wheelhouse) to realise how much their accommodation has been Spartanised over the years. Once a full cafeteria meal service was provided – no doubt welcomed by passengers trekking the length of Italy by rail. Now a basic snack bar suffices. The lifeboats have been replaced by inflatable rafts, but the davits have not been removed, and stand empty. Nevertheless, the ‘Ignia’ trio are ‘proper’ ships, with spacious wooden upper decks and nicely-proportioned funnels; working, revenue-earning heritage from another age. You can walk – almost literally – from stem to stern, and nobody seems to object even if you stand on the bridge wings! A pity the crossing is so brief . . .
The facilities at Messina, built in stages after the earthquake and between the wars, are simply monumental. On disembarking, one walks along the narrow car loading ramps to reach quay level. Immediately in front of the linkspans is the huge ferry terminal building, part of it spanning the sidings. The passenger concourse is dominated by a grand flight of steps, branching part-way up. The left-hand flight goes nowhere nowadays – it used to lead to the embarkation points, but these have now been locked off. The right-hand flight is the easy short-cut to Messina Centrale station, debouching straight onto the interminable main platform (an easier route than threading one’s way through the parked cars and taxis out in the street). Local services tend to depart from the ‘town’ platforms closest to the station building; through trains from the mainland from the more distant platforms on the ‘strait’ side.
The FS timetable will tell you that there are 31 return crossings between Villa and Messina daily; these refer to the five large ships. There is no attempt at providing easily-memorisable clockface departures, and in the middle of the afternoon there is even a gap of 90 minutes between departures, both ways! Sailings continue round the clock, though, to cater for the procession of sleepers. The schedules of the double-ended ferries do not appear in the FS timetable, though a footnote indicates that their departures are roughly half-hourly. Most motorists opting for FS services use these, since the roll-on roll-off facilities are at quay level and are hence less complex than on the bow-loading ships with their high level car decks. In fact, the sensible motorist would ignore the FS services altogether, and patronise Caronte & Tourist, who offer a staggering 96 departures daily in each direction (clockface timetable, every 10 or 20 minutes, non-stop 24 hours a day, seven days a week). The Caronte & Tourist linkspans at Villa are just north of those used by FS, but at Messina they are a rather long walk – or a tram ride – from Messina Centrale.
"Troubled Bridge over Azure Waters"
At its narrowest point the Stretto di Messina is about 3 km wide – similar to the Humber above Hull or the Tay at Dundee. In 1986 plans were published for a massive suspension bridge, which would carry not only the railway but also a six-lane motorway. Completion before the end of the century was envisaged, with the whole of the Mezzogiorno economy expected to benefit from the improved and accelerated communications. The project staggered along, being abandoned and revived, and recently things were looking hopeful - until mid-May 2006.
The on/off bridge project has evidently deterred FS from doing anything to improve the train ferry service. In 1983 the fastest daytime services between Roma and Sicilia, the named trains ‘Aurora’ and ‘Peloritano’, took between 1h36 and 1h45 between arriving at Villa and departing from Messina. The norm for most other services was around two hours. In 2006 fewer passenger trains cross the straits each day. The fastest services from Roma, ‘Peloritano’ and ‘Archimede’, require 1h25 between arriving at Villa and departing from Messina. The southbound ‘Conca d’Oro’ does remarkably well to manage 1h30, while the northbound ‘’Treno del Sole’ achieves a creditable 1h40. Most others require two hours or more. Time and technology have stood still for a quarter of a century or more.
The bridge would obviously cut rail journey times between Villa and Messina to around five minutes, while it is probable that most through expresses would omit the Villa stop altogether, with Messina logically becoming the focal point for all stopping services south to Reggio and Melito and north to Gioia Tauro and Rosarno. But with the project once again on the back burner, how should FS react?
Three options present themselves, do-nothing, low cost and high cost. A do-nothing approach would only be worthwhile if there was a distinct possibility that a bridge could be completed within the next decade or so. Otherwise the ageing ‘Ignia’ trio of ferries would have to be replaced or extensively rebuilt – steel hulls do not last forever without a good deal of replating. The accommodation on these vessels is a disgrace – it might only be a 35-minute crossing, but most rail passengers are on board for upwards of an hour. A good deal of redesigning would have to be done at the linkspans – the boarding and disembarkation facilities are not particularly pedestrian-friendly, especially if one is burdened with luggage or is not particularly athletic. There would be no reduction in journey times for through passenger trains. Nor would there be any incentive for more freight forwarders to switch to rail, At present it is not uncommon for wagons to be held for up to 24 hours at Messina or Villa, awaiting space on one of the ferries.
The low cost option would involve eliminating practically all through passenger train services between Sicilia and the mainland. This sounds savage, but it could result in considerable time-savings and increased connectivity. At present, the whole operation, from the passenger point of view, appears to cater specifically for the through trains, and in particular for the overnight sleepers. If one arrives at Villa on a local train, and is planning to continue from Messina on a local service, there is a good chance that one’s strait crossing will not provide a smooth connection, the ferry being delayed while overnight stock (itself quite probably arriving late following its long run south) is shunted on board. No attempt seems to be made to ‘process’ passengers over the water as quickly as possible on the first available vessel. The jetfoil service from Reggio starts from Marittima, which is around 400 m north of the underground Lido station. Hardly convenient.
So, why not eliminate the longer Reggio to Messina crossing altogether, and concentrate the jetfoils at Villa, where the shorter crossing time would enable more departures per day and resultant capacity increases? A purpose-built jetfoil berth could replace the innermost linkspan right outside the subway exit from Villa station. At Messina Marittima one linkspan would probably have to go, too, so that train passengers with their luggage do not come into conflict with road traffic. Banks of escalators at Marittima would ascend to two or three bay platforms, these hosting all internal Sicilian arrivals and departures. The role of Messina Centrale would be reduced to that of a halt adjacent to the bus station and tram stop. The capacity of the existing train ferries would be increased; a small but perhaps useful incentive thus provided for reviving rail freight in Sicilia. Assuming a 15-minute passage time for the jetfoils, and allowing 10 minutes at each end for connections, the time occupied crossing the strait, from arrival at Villa to departure from Messina, could be clipped to 35 minutes – better, but still excessive for a three-kilometre journey!
Of course, there is one major drawback of this low cost option. Between the Mezzogiorno and Sicilia and the industrial cities of northern Italy there is still a tremendous amount of overnight rail travel, especially at weekends and holiday times, with workers returning south to visit their families. Catch a local service north from Villa on a Saturday or Sunday evening, and just look at the crowds on the platforms waiting for the overnight trains. These folk do not travel light. For such heavily-burdened passengers journey time savings are of less importance than are the benefits of a through train, however crowded and uncomfortable the latter might be.
The squadrons of overnight trains arriving in Messina in the morning have an inhibiting influence on the provision of local train services at this time of day - admittedly an off-peak period for departures from the city. Miss the 09.30 stopping service to Catania, and the next is not until 12.10. There are indeed departures in between these hours, but the trains are strictly for sleeping car passengers! Surely for a city the size of Messina, with a densely-populated hinterland on both the north and south-east coasts, served by railways, the priority should be to foster its local rail services?
The high cost option assumes that a new generation of large train ferries will be required before the bridge is built (if ever). This would not only be a question of replacing the ‘Ignia’-class trio. In the late 1980s, the Danes, who can be credited with having given the Italians the idea of using train ferries on the Stretto di Messina, had a pretty efficient show running on the Store Bælt, with double-track linkspans and three 10,000-tonne, quadruple-track vessels. Complete trains were embarked or disembarked within 10 minutes, the 20 km crossing occupied an hour, and the turn-round time for vessels at Korsør and Nyborg was less than half an hour.
At Messina and Villa new double-track linkspans for passenger stock would have to be provided, one on either side of the strait probably sufficing. Ideally the new ferries would have both bow and stern doors, to avoid the need to go astern on casting off. Reversal in the marshalling yard at Villa would still be necessary, since the port installations along the strait all face north or northwest, into the sheltered waters in the lee of Capo Peloro, the easternmost tip of Sicilia. And whatever the characteristics of the future ferry option decided upon, no vessel could possibly accommodate a semi-permanently coupled trainset such as a ‘Pendolino’. For Sicilia to enjoy the benefits of the Italian high speed network, and for rail freight services to and from the island to win more customers, a bridge is the only sensible solution.