Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Technology in hard times

Look at this beauty.  I mean, just look at it!  Fast and menacing, it is the latest high-speed train to be put into operation.  This time, in Italy.  And if that blood-red color looks vaguely familiar, it's because Ferrari has made it the look of extreme high-performance over the years.  It is being put into service by a privately held company called NTV.  President Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the Ferrari chairman who founded Nuovo Transporto Viaggiatori (NTV) which will operate the train, organized this venture together with other entrepreneurs and industrialists.

The train is based on the French AGV train, designed and built by Alstom, the creator of the highly successful TGV line of trains. AGV is the TGV's intended successor model.

The Italian influence doesn't end with the rolling stock's paint job—the stations have been designed by the legendary firm of Giugiaro.

For those unfamiliar with Italdesign's Giugiaro, he has penned some of the more significant and iconic cars of the last 40 years including the Volkswagen Golf, the Lotus Esprit, and the back-to-the-future DeLorean.  If you wanted something stunning, Giugiaro was the guy to call—and Ferrari had called several times over the years.

The NTV project is interesting on a lot of levels—just the sociology of a highly successful car guy organizing a train project could fill an interesting book.  It will be held up as a symbol of a successful privatization project built in the age of Berlusconi.  Of course, it hasn't made a Euro so those votes are not yet in.  And while Alstom claims the AGV was designed and built without subsidies from the French government, the company would not exist without years of subsidies.  I think it is a wonderful example of how the Producer Classes can perform so magnificently during economic disasters.  The best example from the Great Depression in USA was the amazing DC-3 which first flew in 1935 and one is probably still making money for someone somewhere.
Private 'Italo' Train

Italy Introduces Ferrari on Rails

By Hans-Jürgen Schlamp in Rome   04/24/2012

Italy's burgundy red Ferrari on rails is finally going into service. Starting on April 28, the "Italo" will travel at speeds of up to 300 kilometers per hour between Milan, Rome and Naples. The new high-speed train is more environmentally friendly and also cheaper than its competitors -- on both the rails and roads.

The burgundy red Italo train departs Naples Central Station punctually at 2 p.m., with rain pouring down from the sky. Within a few minutes, it is trundling past backyards at 160 kilometers per hour, then gathers speed. By 2:14 p.m., the train is whizzing along at 200 km/h and reaches 260 just a few minutes later.

The ride is quiet and smooth, and the only indication of the high speeds at which we are traveling are the large LED signs in the cars. By 2:16 p.m., we're up to 300 km/h (186 miles per hour). The train has no locomotive and the motors are equally distributed throughout each car, making for a quieter ride. The train is also capable of traveling at speeds of 360 km/h -- the only problem is that Italian tracks aren't built to support such high speeds.

The rain has now stopped, leaving the wet streets full of puddles. Clouds of water spray can still be seen behind cars on a motorway that runs parallel to the train tracks for a stretch. But the cars only remain in sight for a few seconds -- we're too fast for them.

As the others drive along in the rain, we sit in this Ferrari of a train reading newspapers, typing on laptops, iPads and smart phones. The train features free WiFi and also offers UMTS capacity for mobile phones. Fiberglass cables connect each car with the satellite antenna, which ensures a clear signal for communications, even as the train passes through tunnels. The Italo even features its own Internet portal, replete with information about museums, places of interest and shopping destinations at the train's next destination.

Three-Course Meals Served at Your Seat

In the last car of the train, called the "Club" section on the Italo, first-class customers sit in an area with wide seats and lots of legroom. Two compartments are also offered for families who want to travel together or where business people can hold meetings. In "Club" class, coffee is served and newspapers are distributed. Each seat has a touch screen with which the passenger can watch live television or a selection of films.

A three-course meal costs between €18 ($23) and €22. Meals are served not only in first class, but also in the "Prima" class, which is the train's business class offering. Courses are served directly at the passengers' seats. The train's developers found in studies that dining cars are no longer in fashion in Italy, where passengers prefer not to leave their baggage unattended. And passengers who would prefer a more peaceful ride can also reserve a seat in the "Relax" department, where mobile phones must be shut off. In a country known for loud train passengers whose telephone calls can seem endless, this feature could be a godsend for many.

In the "Smart" class, this train's version of coach, no three-course menus or coffee are served at passengers' seats. Instead, snacks and drinks must be purchased from vending machines. On longer trips, a movie car is also provided, although passengers must pay an additional fee to watch films on overhead flat screen TVs. But the seats are comfortable and the windows much larger than on other similar high-speed rail offerings currently available in Europe.

The private train is also easier on the wallet: A single trip from Naples to Rome can be as inexpensive as €20. A trip on the high-speed offering by Trenitalia, Italy's national railway, is slightly slower than the Italo on this particular stretch and costs nearly double that price. The only comparable price available on the national railway is on a train that takes almost twice as long. Italo is also far cheaper than driving a car the 221 kilometers from Naples to Rome, which will set a person back at least €40 for motorway toll fees and gas alone. Without any traffic jams -- and that is seldom -- the trip by car takes about two and a half hours.

Lighter, Greener and More Energy Efficient

At 2:32 p.m., the LED sign shows the train humming along at 300 km/h, whizzing past meadows and fields. Farm houses pop up on the landscape here and there, but disappear just as quickly. As trains traveling in the opposite direction pass by, you can barely hear them through the thick windows. In other high-speed trains around Europe, passing trains often create a bang, almost like an impact as they go by. But the Italo is well insulated and, in environmental terms, is on the right path. Because the train is lighter than its high-speed competition, the Italo consumes 10 percent less energy. It also travels much more quietly.

The work in developing Italo began four years ago. At the time, Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo (hence the nickname) and luxury shoe king Diego Della Valle of Tod's and a handful of other prominent Italian industrialists and financial institutions founded Nuovo Trasporto Viaggiatori (NTV). French national railway SNCF, which operates the TGV, also holds a 20 percent stake. The trains to be used by NTV were then developed and built by the world leader in high-speed trains, France's Alstom, which developed the TGV, and is for the first time introducing its successor, the AGV, in passenger service with the Italo.

"We have brought an end to one of the longest monopolies in the history of our country," Ferrari and NTV Chairman Monetzemolo said on Monday. "Finally, Italian travelers and tourists can choose." more

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