This part of the series on ideas to counter the increasing ‘Ghost Village’ phenomenon in many rural areas in central Sardinia, is dedicated to transport connections. As you might have figured out from many other posts on this website such as #BusNotturniCagliari campaign, I am a massive believer in public transport. For me this is the most fundamental part in countering this phenomenon and also making the roads safer and less clogged up with traffic and hence this is the longest post in this series.
When talking about small communities the importance of good transport connections is vital. This can be the ‘make it or break it’ factor when choosing whether to stay or leave the village you grew up in. Whilst in the past the communities rarely needed to move much,now times have changed and so there is the need and wish to be in contact with the rest of the world.
Whether to go to school, work, see a doctor or to hang out in the cool bar in the neighbouring village, it is important to provide safe roads and reliable, frequent and affordable public transport connections.
Sardinia has two railway systems: Trenitalia and Ferrovie della Sardegna. Trenitalia is owned by the Italian state whilst Ferrovie della Sardegna is owned by the Sardinian regional authority which also is the owner of ARST, the biggest bus company on the island. The problem is that amongst the many illogical things on the island, there is no cooperation whatsoever between the two transport systems which are still ultimately subsidised by the Sardinian tax payer.
What is my idea?
Well, first of all Trenitalia should run frequent express services between the big cities with very few intermediate stops. Simutaneously there should also be local ‘slow trains’ that run between the two larger stations where the express train stops,connecting those two centres to all the minor communities by stopping at every station.
Ferrovie della Sardegna should also do a similar operation and this must come with a modernisation of its fleet which is still mostly based on the ‘Litorina’ model, originally introduced under Mussolini’s regime with the most recent up-dates in 1970s/80s to most parts of the network. These modern trains with air conditioning, step free access, wifi could also potentially reach higher speeds than the current average of 50 Km/h. Most of these routes are only used in Summer for tourism purposes as the single track route offers beautiful views over the undiscovered inland heart of Sardinia. The modernisation of the fleet would also require a certain amount of maintenance to the tracks and stations adding, for example, information screens with train timetables and ticket machines (possibly available in several languages). Same as Trenitalia, there should be local trains and longer distance ones.
As most of the island ,however,is not connected by the railway network there needs to be a good bus service to integrate with the railway connections ensuring the bus arrives at the station a few minutes before the arrival of the train,and also leaving a few minutes after it departs in order to take the railway passengers onto their final destination with minimal delay. The bus fleet is modern yet really uncomfortable, has no wifi, no card readers to sell tickets onboard and very few cater for handicapped people. As if this wasn’t bad enough the buses are also large which makes it really hard for them to be driven up narrow and winding mountain or coastal roads which characterise more than 80% of the country roads in Sardinia.
To sell the entire fleet and invest in a new one is a must in my view. The waste of public money for these very good looking and modern luxury* buses seen from the outside is sickening (* ‘luxury’ by definition as they all have an espresso machine incorporated on board which has never have been used but is there just to tick the box in order to comply with the definition, this is how low Sardinian politics can get). The new buses beyond being modern (card reader, air conditioning, comfortable seating and Wifi) together with a step free access should be of two types: long and short distance. The long distance ones, which should be used only in areas that are not covered by the railway network, should have a greater capacity maybe even double deckers to maximise the number of people that can be transported by one driver, hence controlling the price of the individual ticket. These buses should run an express service, similar to the one previously mentioned for trains. The local buses should be smaller or even perhaps mini-vans which can move with fewer difficulties, more engine power and faster along the winding roads compared to the current large buses (which in most cases travel half empty). These buses would pick up passengers even from non designated bus stops like a sort of taxi service along the route and do the same for dropping people off. The local drivers, with good road knowledge of the area covered, could even offer to make small detours to accompany people to their door which could be really good for people with reduced mobility and the elderly. This sort of bus system is very popular in Eastern Europe.
Finally it is important that the bus system must be perfectly integrated with both railway systems. This means an efficient website in several languages where tickets can be purchased online from A to B which would include local buses, trains, coaches and if necessary ferries to the smaller islands. These combined tickets should also be available for purchase via an App and in newsagents, tobacconists and supermarkets across the island. The option to buy tickets on board with a surcharge should also always be guaranteed.
Offering free travel to all the residents of these communities over the age of 65, handicapped people, children under 16 and reduced fares for students would encourage a more proficient use of these transport networks.
Throughout this post I have stressed the availability of free wifi but offering this service (when technically possible) would allow businessmen and students to work whilst commuting and other passengers to enjoy entertainment whilst being driven from their rural community to the bigger centres.
This may be a utopian dream but as Walt Disney said ‘all of our dreams can come true – if you have the courage to pursue them’.