This article is based on Italian train trips we’ve taken in 2014, 2012, 2009, 2006, 2005 and 2003. In 2014 and 2012 Howard traveled in his Permobil, which weighs around 325 pounds (148 kg) and is around 26 inches (66 cm) wide and with the footrest in the shortened position, 48 inches (1.22 meters) long. Howard is 6 feet (1.83 meters) tall and, when seated in his Permobil he’s 57 inches (1.45 meters) high. On our previous trips Howard used a Quickie P110 power chair that weighed around 100 pounds (45 kg) and had manually adjustable footrests.
Italy has an extensive system of intercity passenger trains serving major cities, medium-size ones and even small towns, with coverage far more extensive than in the United States. Trenitalia is the national intercity train operator. The equipment ranges from sleek, modern, high-speed Eurostar and Frecciarossa coaches to clunky, antiquated, slow trains serving regional routes. Train travel in Italy for passengers in wheelchairs has been steadily improving, although of course there are still limitations and obstacles. Making the system accessible to passengers who use wheelchairs is a complex challenge considering how extensive the system is; how long it had been in place before widespread awareness of the need for wheelchair access; and the complexity, variety and age of the trains, stations and other infrastructure, especially the fact that the platforms are low while the trains and their doorways are high.
Our train travel has been of two types: sightseeing day trips without luggage, where the consequences of a glitch are fairly minor; and trips with luggage to get from one city where we’ve stayed to another. We’ve certainly had more stressful situations and frustrating moments then we wished, but despite them, taking the train is a fast, economical (considering the cost of car rental and gas), reliable, pleasant and often scenic way to travel from city to city. Navigating the train system in a wheelchair takes planning, patience and flexibility, but things keep improving – each trip has been smoother than the previous ones.
In 2014 we took the Frecciarossa from Naples to Florence, and from Florence to Rome. From Naples to Florence took just under three hours, and from Florence to Rome an hour and a half. Speeds reached close to 150 mph, and the ride was scenic, enjoyable and impressively smooth.
Reservations, Ticketing and Accessible Routes
Wheelchair passengers must reserve an accessible space on the train at least 24 hours in advance by email, phone or in person at the “Sala Blu” (Blue Room) (marked with the blue wheelchair logo) at the departure station. Stations in 14 major cities have Blue Rooms. The Blue Rooms are operated by RFI, a contractor, not directly by Trenitalia.
It’s important to be aware that reserving a seat (in the case of a wheelchair passenger, a space) on a particular train isn’t the same as purchasing a ticket. When you check in at the Blue Room at your departure station (see below), you must have tickets in hand, so unless you’ve already purchased them, you need to arrive more than 30 minutes before departure in order to go to the ticket counter and purchase your tickets. Usually passengers in wheelchairs are allowed to go to the front of the line, but don’t count on it. Sometimes in smaller cities we’ve been able to purchase tickets at the Blue Room and didn’t need to go to the ticket counter, and other times a Blue Room employee accompanied us to the ticket counter and helped us buy tickets. In 2014, for the first time ever, we were able to reserve seats and purchase tickets online, but only for the Naples to Florence trip.
If your plans are solid and you are able to reserve seats and purchase tickets in advance, that’s the best way to go. There is no penalty for cancelling a seat reservation. We don’t know about ticket refund or exchange policies. But even if you don’t purchase tickets in advance, whether because of the limitations of the system or because you don’t want to commit funds, it’s highly advisable to reserve seats.
In 2014 the reservation and ticket purchase process was the smoothest ever. Months in advance of our trip, we emailed the Naples Blue Room to reserve seats from Naples to Florence, and the Florence Blue Room to reserve seats from Florence to Rome. We were able to do this because we had our hotel reservations in each city and our plans were definite. The Naples Blue Room advised us first to go on the Trenitalia website and set up an account, which Howard did. The program is called CartaFRECCIA, and it’s easy to sign up in English. For certain fields, such as address and telephone number in Italy, Howard made something up. You will receive a “personal code,” which is an account number.
After setting up the account, Howard emailed the Naples Blue Room and told them his personal code. They emailed back to confirm the seat reservation and instructed him to go on the Trenitalia website, where he logged on and found that the seats had been reserved under his account, and he was then able to purchase and print the tickets. This was set up in English, and it was easy to do the transaction. So when we arrived in the Naples Blue Room on the travel date, we had our printed tickets and didn’t have to buy them. On the train you will need to have your tickets available to show the conductor.
Interestingly, the Florence Blue Room was unaware of this procedure. They confirmed the seat reservation by email, but told us it was impossible to purchase tickets for wheelchair seating in advance. So we purchased them at the Florence train station on the travel date. Howard was taken to the front of the line. We didn’t get the advance purchase discount, but we were charged second class fare for first class seats. (If you’ve reserved a wheelchair space but haven’t purchased tickets in advance, as in this case, the space will be held for you and not assigned to anyone else. If you change plans, it’s important to cancel your reservation so the space can be made available to another wheelchair user.)
Seat reservations are required for passengers in wheelchairs because not all trains have spaces for wheelchairs (over 350 trains do, according to the Trenitalia website), and those that do have only a few because only certain cars have wheelchair spaces. The trains with no wheelchair spaces are mainly the slower regional and local ones. On trains where the only accessible cars are in first class, which seems to be the case with the Frecciarossa and Eurostar trains, wheelchair passengers are charged second class fare. Seating for one companion is available next to the wheelchair space; when reserving a wheelchair space, you can also reserve a companion seat. The discount for the wheelchair passenger is also available for the companion.
To sum up, there are two types of discounts. First, there is a discount for passengers in wheelchairs (and their companions) when the only accessible car is in first class. (We don’t know the extent of disability required to qualify; for example, whether someone using crutches would be eligible.) Second, a discount is available to anyone who purchases tickets in advance. In 2014 we were able to get both discounts for the Naples to Florence trip, which amounted to a huge savings, but only the wheelchair discount for the Florence to Rome trip, which was still a significant savings.
Understandably, if you are traveling with a third person, they aren’t eligible for a companion discount. Immediately after we received our reservations for Howard and Michele’s seats, we went on the Trenitalia website and purchased a seat in the same car for our traveling companion, which was expensive because it was a first class seat at regular price. But his ticket was eligible for the advance purchase discount, and reserving his seat ensured that we’d all be in the same car.
Italian travel agencies sell train tickets, so theoretically you can reserve a wheelchair space and purchase tickets at a travel agency anywhere in Italy, but we’ve tried this and the travel agencies didn’t know how to handle accessible seating. It’s best to avoid travel agencies for train reservations.
It appears from our research that all or almost all of the fast trains between major cities have accessible spaces. But many of the trains serving smaller cities and towns are not accessible – for some places, only a subset of the trains is accessible. This is a major drawback because it means that passengers in wheelchairs have only a limited choice of departure times available to them. In 2009 we took day trips from Bologna to Ravenna, Ferrara and Parma, and for all three cities had to choose between leaving Bologna at 9 AM or close to noon. There were departures between those times, but those trains were not equipped with wheelchair spaces. These limitations also preclude flexibility and spontaneity on these types of routes, making it difficult or impossible to change plans at the last minute (other than canceling a trip).
In other places the train station isn’t accessible, so none of the trains is available to passengers in wheelchairs. We’d heard that a day trip to Orvieto from Rome is worthwhile and enjoyable, but Trenitalia told us the Orvieto station is not accessible. (Ironically, the funicular in Orvieto does appear to be accessible.) Similarly, only the central train station in Pisa is accessible, not the one close to Piazza dei Miracoli, where the Duomo, Leaning Tower and Camposanto are located.
Passengers in wheelchairs must check in at the Blue Room at least 30 minutes before departure, tickets in hand. An employee will accompany you to the tracks. Always check in at the Blue Room; don’t just show up at the tracks and assume someone will be there to help.
In Rome, Naples and some of the other large cities, the main train station (e.g. Roma Termini and Napoli Centrale) is a terminus and all of the tracks can be reached directly from the station lobby without an elevator. But in some of the smaller cities there is a passageway under the tracks; depending on one’s train, it may be necessary to go through the passageway to reach the particular tracks. In these stations there are elevators from the front of the station down to the passageway and throughout the passageway to each set of tracks. In our experience the elevators have never been out of service. Depending on the station and the time, some elevators are open to the public and others are operated only by Trenitalia employees. But because wheelchair passengers must check in at the Blue Room and be accompanied to the tracks by an employee, the elevator will be operated by an employee regardless of what time it is.
Wheelchair passengers are boarded from the platform to the train by a motorized lift. Another reason reservations are required is so Trenitalia can ensure availability of the lift and employees to operate it. In large cities where the station is a terminus, getting on and off the train isn’t rushed, but in small ones the train stops for only a few minutes and the process can be quite harried. Be sure to organize and watch your luggage.
The lift is on wheels and the employee moves it along the platform, aligning it with the train door. There is a folding ramp at each end of the lift – one is used to mount/dismount the lift from the platform, and the other to enter/exit the train. According to the Trenitalia website, wheelchairs up to the following dimensions and loaded weight can be accommodated: 27½ inches (70 cm) wide, 47.2 inches (120 cm) long, and 440 pounds (200 kg) loaded weight. (These dimensions are per the ISO 7193 standard.) But some of the lifts we encountered from 2003 through 2009 were narrower and shorter than the stated dimensions. Often there was almost no room to spare on the sides or lengthwise, and Howard’s footrests had to be shortened to the shortest position. We took several trips from Bologna in 2009 and lifts of different sizes were used, which created some difficult situations.
In 2012 we were concerned that Howard’s Permobil wouldn’t fit; it’s slightly longer than the maximum prescribed length and, including Howard’s weight, heavier than the maximum weight (we won’t say by how much!). But in the event, weight was not a problem. When we departed from Rome the lift was adequate size, but when we returned to Rome there was a different lift and Howard’s wheelchair just barely fit with no room to spare, his tires scraping the sides of the ramp. Both times in Naples the lift was brand-new and wider, and there was plenty of room.
In 2014 there was plenty of room for Howard’s Permobil on all of the lifts – in Naples, Florence and Rome. Weight was never a problem; the lift motor did not seem to be straining. It appears that the older, smaller lifts are being replaced with larger ones throughout the system.
Although many years ago we had heard that passengers in electric wheelchairs are required to transfer to a train seat or a manual wheelchair on the train, Howard has never been asked to do this, always remaining in his wheelchair. First class is very spacious; second class, while not quite as large, had ample room for his wheelchair. In both classes there is always a medium size accessible bathroom near the wheelchair space.
Conclusion and Information
In conclusion, procedures vary from one station to another and even from one employee to another. This is Italy, after all, so actual practice isn’t necessarily the same as official policy. It’s essential to check everything carefully. Be patient and allow plenty of time. While there is sometimes disorganization and inconsistency, the fortunate bottom line is that Trenitalia is committed to wheelchair access, the employees are doing their best, everything works out in the end, and things are continually improving on the major routes and in the major stations. The main drawbacks are that the stations in many of the smaller cities and towns are inaccessible, and for the smaller cities and towns that do have accessible stations, only some of the trains are accessible. These conditions are likely to improve only slowly.
Trenitalia has an English-language website with detailed information for passengers with disabilities. From the homepage, go to “Information and Contacts” at the top of the page and PRM (passengers with reduced mobility) is one of the choices on the dropdown menu. Or go to “Before Travelling” at the bottom, and “Assistance to PRM” is one of the categories. From the PRM homepage there is a link to “Sala Blu” with contact information for disability services for stations throughout Italy.
We should mention that, over the course of planning trips over many years, we’ve always received prompt email replies in English from Trenitalia and the Blue Rooms, typically within 24 hours. This webpage is in English for passengers with reduced mobility (PRM).
The Italian language webpages have more detailed access information. Find PMR (persone a mobilita ridotta). Wheelchair is sedia a rotelle. Here is a link to the page with information about wheelchair dimensions. Trenitalia national helpline for disabled passengers (from within Italy only): Phone: 199-30-30-60. General passenger information (from within Italy only): 199-892-021. Rome Blue Room can provide information by phone about access throughout the system. From abroad call: +39-06-4730-8579.