Crossing the Straits of Messina by train ferry

A recent holiday in Sicily and Amalfi brought an opportunity to travel some distance by train, including a crossing on the Messina train ferry from Sicily to the mainland. This is one of the last in Europe, most having been replaced by bridges or tunnels and was one of the highlights of our trip.

There is a regular service of trains from Rome and Naples to Palermo and Syracuse on Sicily and these all involve the coaches being shunted onto the purpose built ferry that runs between Messina on Sicily and Villa San Giovanni on the mainland. We travelled northwards and caught a four coach train from the coastal resort of Taormina-Giardini, which had started in Syracuse. This was hauled by one of the elderly Class 656 articulated Bo-Bo-Bo electric locomotives, which appear to be being phased out of service as we saw a number of them lying derelict in yards around the Italian system.

At Messina Centrale the electric loco was uncoupled, toilets locked and air conditioning and lighting switched off. A diesel shunter then drew our coaches out and attached them to the Palermo portion, the whole consist then being propelled forwards the short distance to Messina Maritime and onto the waiting ferry 'Messina'.

On board the rake was split again with our portion drawn back off the boat and then propelled onto another siding on the 'train deck'. Here the coaches were linked up to a power supply again and the on board services started again although the toilets remained locked.

As soon as the coaches were stationary on the car deck steps were put out and passengers generally detrained as the bar and cafe on the ship are the only opportunity to buy refreshments between Sicily and Rome as there is no buffet car on the train. This gave me the opportunity to have a look round the train deck and watch the departure process.

There are points on the ship and four roads. The nose of the ship lines up directly with the quayside tracks and then is clamped in place to provide a seamless connection of rails. Once the ferry is ready to depart this clamp lifts up and the ship backs out before closing the nose doors. The actual deck is spotless and seems a little strange in the 21st Century to be freely wandering round rail coaches at track level.

Up on the passenger deck there are good views of Messina and then the considerable marine traffic in the actual straits as it crosses.

At Villa San Giovanni we berthed alongside another train ferry that looked much less respectable. I thought at first the "Scilla” was laid up but then realised it was being loaded although it turned out that only freight wagons were being shunted on.

A tannoy announcement was made as we neared the port and passengers returned to the train before the coaches were pulled off the vessel by another diesel shunter. This also had to negotiate a steep incline up to the main line passenger station where a main line electric locomotive was coupled on and the lights and other on board services came back on again. The actual ferry crossing was about forty minutes but, with shunting on and off the vessel, Messina arrival to Villa San Giovanni departure is around 90 minutes. Our journey northwards then resumed, now on a high speed main line.

We were initially disappointed that our seats on this mainland stretch were on the inland side rather than the coast but the volcanic scenery was actually much more interesting and spectacular.

Although our train was going on to Naples and Rome we left it at Salerno for the Amalfi Coast. Journey time from Sicily had been around six hours in clean comfortable carriages. An interesting journey with much to see. And the cost of this? Booked four months in advance it was actually an unbelievable £12 per person – exceptional value and fully recommended.