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Italy's New 'Bullet Train' Aims to Shake Up Euro Travel

Sabina Castelfranco

Italy will launch Europe's first private high-speed train service Saturday, as the country moves towards a more liberal economy.  The move could lead other European countries to follow Italy's example of privatizing rail transport and creating new jobs and competition in the marketplace.

The new bullet-shaped "Italo" trains can travel at a top speed of 360 kilometers per hour.  They are run by NTV, a company headed by Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo, which invested $1.3 billion.

He says the real achievement was having brought about liberalization in Italian rail transportation.

"At last, Italian citizens and foreign travelers will be able to choose, and one of the longest monopolies in our country has come to an end," said Montezemolo.

Montezemolo says passengers would benefit from the competition.  He adds that the aim is to take a quarter of the market from the state rail network Trenitalia, the biggest employer in the country, by 2014.

Transport experts say despite the difficult economic times, the new train could be a positive development.

"We are still the second manufacturing system in Europe after Germany and I think what is happening in the railway system is an example of the strength of the industrial system," noted Professor Matteo Caroli at LUISS university in Rome.  "We have basically financial problems, like other European countries, but the competitiveness of our companies is strong."

The project is one example of the new ambitions for Italy's economy, the eurozone's third largest, under Prime Minister Mario Monti.  Monti has been working to shake up a sluggish economy heavily influenced by protectionist traditions.

NTV's fleet will consist of 25 trains that are being supplied by French multinational Alstom.

"This train is the fourth generation of train for Alstom.  So, it's really at the top, and there is no other technology in the world like this one," said Alstom Managing Director Pierre-Louis Bertina.

The trains boast sleek interiors with leather seats, large panoramic windows and a cinema car.  There will be three different classes of travel allowing passengers to choose what best suits their needs and how much they want to spend.  NTV's Giuseppe Bonollo says the quality of the service is the real distinguishing point.

"High technology inside, Wi-Fi connectivity to Internet, free for all travelers and on top of that - this really is a world premiere - the possibility through the laptop to access to satellite direct TV connection," Bonollo explained.

At Rome's Termini station, many travelers were looking forward to the launch of the new high-speed train.

Italo is adopting an aggressive pricing policy, with discounted fares for advance reservations. In the meantime, the state-owned rail network has already lowered its ticket prices and improved its service.

Other European nations will be watching carefully to see whether it is in their interest to follow the Italian example.

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