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Originally published Monday, December 15, 2008 at 10:32 AM

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Italy launches high-speed Rome-Milan train

New high-speed train zips between Rome and Milan, Italy's political and financial capitals in 3.5 hours

Associated Press

Just outside Milan, the countryside started to blur as the Italian Railway's new Red Arrow high-speed train reached its maximum velocity of 186 mph.

Dario Rigamonti, a consultant traveling to Florence on Monday, moved to an empty window seat, gazing out in wonder: "It is impressive."

The speedier service shaves an hour off the lucrative 300-mile Milan-Rome route, connecting Italy's political and financial capitals in 3 ½ hours 18 times a day.

The timing of the new service, which launched Sunday, couldn't be better for the state-owned Italian Railway. Air service between Milan and Rome has been thrown into disarray with the relaunch of Alitalia, which lost passengers to trains and to the highways as wildcat strikes and reduced connections made air travel uncertain.

A second-class one-way ticket can cost around $90 ($90.52), while an airline trip is at least $121 and driving can cost about $114 in gas and toll charges.

Italian Railway CEO Mauro Moretti aims to snag 60 percent of the 3.7 million passengers who fly the route every year.

But analyst Diego Petrocelli of Bain & Co. said they won't really start taking a bite out of air travelers until the time gets under three hours. That's expected to occur at the end of 2010 when the rail track between Florence and Bologna is improved to shorten that leg/ .

High-speed train travel is not new in Europe. France launched the first TGV service in 1981, between Paris and Lyon, shortening a five-hour drive to two hours and 40 minutes. Germany's InterCity Express trains began service in 1991 and Spain started its first fast trains in 1992 to coincide with the Seville Expo that year.

The Spanish railway's high-speed service from Madrid to Barcelona took off in February, going after a chunk of Europe's busiest air route, which had 4.7 million passengers in 2006.

The 400-mile trip by rail takes two hours and 38 minutes — well under the three-hour benchmark for attracting frequent fliers.

Italy began its first-high-speed service on the Rome-Naples route in 2005.

The future will be connecting high-speed service with neighboring countries — but that seems a while off, said Petrocelli.

Work on the hotly contested high-speed TAV line between Turin and Lyon in neighboring France was halted due to protests before the 2006 Winter Olympic Games — and still has not resumed. The stretch is part of a European-wide project to connect Europe by high-speed train from Lisbon, Portugal to Kiev, Ukraine.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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