Tourist trains between the Ligurian Coast and the Côte d’Azur

The French branch of Italy’s national rail operator Trenitalia wants to run two tourist trains linking the Ligurian and French Riviera. A Southern Alps Cross-Border Alliance has been set up to improve cooperation between Italy’s Liguria province, France’s Côte d’Azur and Monaco.

tourist trainsOne of these rail links would follow the Mediterranean coast and the second would travel along France’s Line of Wonders (La Ligne des Merveilles) in the Roya Valley.

The announcement was made by representatives of Trenitalia France at a conference organised by the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Nice (Alpes-Maritimes department). “Trenitalia is looking to the Côte d’Azur, especially for tourist services,” said Marco Capusciutti, the new president of Trenitalia France. The Italian state-owned operator is already running trains on the Paris-Lyon-Milan route from December 2021.

Through a new company, called Treni turistici italiani (Italian Tourist Trains), the operator hopes to revive a rail link between Milan (Italy) and Nice (France) and even further afield for tourist destinations. The project focuses, when technically possible, on reopening the rail link between Milan and the Côte d’Azur, perhaps even to Marseille or, who knows, one day perhaps to Avignon,” added Luigi Cantamessa, general manager of Treni turistici italiani.

Plans for a tourist train as early as this summer

In mid-January, Cantamessa had announced that a night train to France would be introduced from May, but in the meantime the dates of the problem have changed. A night train no longer seems to be an option now, and neither does a May start.

Now, the head of the company says that the offer will most likely be implemented this summer, with one pair of trains per day Milan-Marseilles, but it is not yet known how much the ticket will cost. It is not known at this stage exactly which cities will benefit from the new rail links or how long the journey will last.

The trains will most likely make a short stop at Ventimiglia (the border crossing point between Italy and France), during which a French locomotive will be coupled to the traction instead of the Italian one and the train staff (conductor and controllers) will become French. The wagons of the train will come from Italy. The Italian company said that it will not be a Frecciarossa train, but “a conventional rolling stock bearing the FS Treni Turistici Italiani brand”.

The rail link will be opened in collaboration with SNCF, France’s state-owned rail operator. The new tourist trains running between the Ligurian coast and the Côte d’Azur could be a real success, especially during the summer season, Italian company officials believe, given that road traffic on the route is often choked by traffic jams and the European Commission’s concerns about environmental protection. “Market conditions are now in place to operate a daily seasonal link focused on tourism needs,” Luigi Cantamessa added.

The introduction of these cross-border trains would not be an absolute first, given that between 2014 and 2021 the trains operated by Thelo, the former name of Trenitalia France, used to connect Marseille and Milan in just over seven hours.

“The problem was cost-effectiveness. It’s not possible to run as many trains as we would like, because there is only one railway (admittedly double and electrified – ed) on the Côte d’Azur. If this happens, it will be good news. It is on an international and European axis that is under-exploited from a rail point of view. And the motorway is too expensive,” says Laurence Sarfati, representative of the Franco-Italian committee for the defence of the Cuneo-Nice line.

“This rail link was stopped immediately after the Covid crisis, for rather industrial reasons: the saturation of the rail network on this axis and the lack of harmonisation of European networks, which forces the change of locomotive between France and Italy,” explains Luigi Cantamessa.

The Wonder Train in France, in the spotlight Trenitalia

Also on the border railways, Trenitalia has another project, namely the development of the equivalent of the Train des Merveilles between Turin and Nice/Ventimiglia, passing through Breil-sur-Roya. In concrete terms, the plan is to put into service from next year fully glazed, panoramic carriages similar to those of the Ferrovia del Bernina. “Anything that can highlight the unique and exceptional character of this line is a good thing,” says Laurence Sarfati.

The Nice-Tende rail link, also known as the Train of Wonders in the South of France, was nearly closed a few years ago. In 2019, the Provence-Alpes Maritimes-Côte d’Azur Regional Chamber of Accounts had put the rail link in a bad light due to low occupancy.

The “financial watchdog” in the French region noted a very low occupancy rate of only 15%, while the cost of operating the line was €38.84 per train kilometre, so that ticket revenue did not even cover 6% of total expenditure.

However, despite the losses, the Regional Council has not even thought of closing this line, which leads to the Vallée des Merveilles, considering it an economic asset for the Vallée de la Roya. However, the region has made certain adjustments, such as maintaining the rail link at peak times, supplemented by coach links at other times of the day.

According to SNCF calculations, a Nice-Tende coach link would cost 13 times less than the current rail link. Opened in 1928, the Line of Wonders was rehabilitated about 40 years ago.

Italy-France-Monaco cross-border cooperation partnership

Returning to the current debate on tourist and non-tourist trains between the Ligurian and Côte d’Azur coasts, the foundations are also being laid for an institutional association reflecting the common political will of the three countries concerned – Italy, France and Monaco.

Recently, in Imperia (Liguria, Italy), French, Italian and Monegasque representatives met to launch a Southern Alps Cross-Border Alliance. The meeting was attended by the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, and the mayor of Imperia, Claudio Scajola.

“Alone we cannot necessarily mobilise substantial resources. Joining forces will allow us to better fund projects, based on a very precise timetable”, explained Christian Estrosi. He recalled the ongoing project to modernise the Genoa-Ventimiglia railway line, which will bring the Ligurian capital just one hour and ten minutes from the French border, where the train now has to change trains.

The Mayor of Nice said that during the next meeting of the Alliance, which will take place in June in his city, “we will set the roadmap of the Alliance for the coming years and define a functioning with a rotating presidency”.

One of the concrete objectives of this alliance will be to validate a 25 km long rail link between Ventimiglia and the large railway station under construction near Nice Airport, to bring Genoa within one hour and 20 minutes from this international airport.

“This alliance will become an instrument of influence, a new model of multi-level territorial diplomacy to defend the issues of the Southern Alps through a single means, to put the relevant actors at the same table to solve the problems of this territory and to obtain funding to meet the challenges, particularly in the areas of transport, health, the fight against climate change, the economy and public services,” reads the joint press release issued by the metropolis of Nice Côte d’Azur and the province of Imperia.

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