Just the ticket

A nostalgic journey on La Porrettana

Sarah Humphreys
March 29, 2012

Delightful in all seasons, a trip on Tuscany's oldest steam train line, La Porrettana, is an unforgettable journey, meandering through the Apennine mountains, amid stunning scenery, nature and nostalgia. Only on the Porrettana can you follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, whom aficionados claim must have travelled on this historic railway line on his journey from Switzerland to Florence after defeating Moriaty at the Reichenbach Falls.



It was the first railway line through the Apennines, connecting Italy's northern and central regions. In 1858 Jean Louis Protche, a French engineer, was given the arduous task of planning a link between Pistoia and Bologna. The main difficulty in constructing the line was the 500-metre drop between Pracchia and Pistoia. Protche's solution was a spiral tunnel 2,727 metres long, between Piteccio and Corbezzi, known as the Galleria dell'Appennino.


It turned out to be an amazing feat of engineering at the time. Work was carried out with picks and shovels, explosives were rarely used. However, many workers were killed in unpredictable landslides. Officially inaugurated on November 3, 1864, the Porrettana line had 47 tunnels, 35 bridges and viaducts, and covered a distance of 99 kilometres. Trains travelled at 20 kilometres per hour and the journey took three and a half hours in those years.


Today, however, La Porretana is sadly under the threat of closure. Initially, the railway suffered from problems with the weather, braking on steep gradients and bad ventilation in the tunnels. Smoke not only caused respiratory problems for passengers and drivers, but left film on the tracks, making them slippery. As the train climbed away from Pistoia, teams of drivers on horseback were stationed at the exit of the main tunnels, on call and ready to take over from semi-asphyxiated drivers, whenever necessary.


In World War I, traffic on the line reached its peak, with up to 70 trains running each day. However, after the Direttissima line between Bologna and Florence was opened in 1934, the Porrettana was relegated to handling local traffic only. During World War II, the Germans blew up 29 bridges, 8 tunnels, 10 stations and 52 kilometres of train tracks. The damage was repaired relatively quickly following the war: the Bologna-Pracchia line was reopened on October 5, 1947, and the Pracchia-Pistoia line on May 29, 1949.


The most interesting part of the line is no doubt the section between Pistoia and Porretta. Nowadays, trains on the one-track line run at no more than 70 kilometres per hour and take about 50 minutes to cover the distance. From Pistoia, the first two stations, Valdibrana and Piteccio, are now defunct. Visible on the right, Valdibrana's viaduct actually goes nowhere; it was built as a safety device and counter-gradient to help stop the train. Piteccio's octagonal brick water reservoir can be glimpsed on the left.


Between tunnels, there are lovely views. On the left, after Corbezzi, is the tiny pink station of Castagno, the smallest in Italy, which services an average of nine passengers a day. Following San Mommè, is Pracchia, the largest station and highest point on the line at 617 metres above sea level. The train then follows the Reno river valley, where it crosses the Tuscany-Emilia Romagna border five times before arriving at the charming station of Biagioni-Lagacci. The penultimate stop is Molino del Pallone. Here you can visit the Parco Naturale Sul Reno, which is especially pleasant in the summer. For a small donation, you can make use of a sun-bed, bask riverside and take a dip. The last stop is Porretta Terme, famous for its spas. This is where you change trains to continue onwards to Bologna.


Considering its rich history, it is a real shame that the service has been greatly reduced since February 2011. Buses have replaced 12 trains. The Tuscan Region claims there are not enough passengers to make the line economically viable. Moreover, the contract between the Tuscan region and Trenitalia expires in 2014, causing more fears of closure. Luca Ceccobao, the transport minister for the region, says that the line should not close and further reductions in service are unacceptable. The folksinger Francesco Guccini has been an active protestor. Having never had a driver's licence, he states that this line is vital to him and other mountain residents in similar, high altitude locations.


An appeal is being made to UNESCO on behalf of the provinces of Pistoia and Bologna to try to save this unique piece of national heritage. On April 3, a press conference will be held in Bologna, officially launching the candidacy, involving public institutions and representatives from both sides of the mountain chain. Ideas to promote tourism include building an ‘ecomuseum' in Pistoia to recount the history of La Porrettana and its trains. School trips to the various museums in the mountains are also being arranged, in addition to a series of nine special tourist trains. The first is to be the Porrettana Noir Express, inspired by Sherlock Holmes. A green-coloured train is being planned for the summer, promoting folklore, sports activities and local products.


Personally, I have a deep fondness for La Porrettana. On my first journey, a student of mine happened to be driving the train and invited me to visit the cabin. While taking in spectacular upfront views of the Pistoia mountains, he proudly recounted the line's history and explained how the train works. Arriving at Molino del Pallone, he offered me his seat and let me take the wheel: I pressed down on the large accelerator pedal and pulled the brake in Porretta, blowing the whistle all the way! It was better than the train set I never had!


Here's hoping that a solution will be found to save this regional-and national-treasure. But buy a ticket soon, just in case.




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