FOR many years, the Italian autonomous province of South Tyrol has actively promoted and enhanced local public transport, placing rail at the heart of the network alongside a bus system which serves the entire province.

South Tyrol's rail network covers four main routes:

• Brenner line (Brennero - Bolzano - Ala)

• Venosta Valley line (Merano - Malles)

• Merano line (Bolzano - Merano), and

• Puster Valley line (Fortezza - San Candido).

The province has introduced regular-interval 30 or 60-minute-frequency services on all four routes, with additional trains at peak times. Accommodating the so-called South Tyrol Timetable has been a major challenge on a network used by around 200 freight trains on a typical weekday, as well as long-distance services.

"It was simply a political decision," explains Mr Thomas Widmann, South Tyrol's regional minister for mobility (pictured). "We wanted to modernise public transport and with the help of experts drew up a programme of improvements. Then we presented our proposals in Committee [local government with executive power], obtained the necessary funding and we started. We were able to do much in a few years, but we still have many ongoing projects."

TLW-WidmannSouth Tyrol has powers to legislate on many aspects of local public transport, and the provincial government is responsible for coordinating schedules and fares.

"This allowed us to establish uniform criteria for public transport as early as the 1980s," Widmann says. "It also meant we could proceed quickly and successfully in 2003, when we finally decided to modernise the whole system, creating a systematic and regular-interval timetable, upgrading infrastructure, rolling stock, fares system and expanding the offer, with a major investment programme."

The local rail network draws upon the concept that inspired the Venosta Valley railway, a line reopened by the province in 2005. The 60km line from Malles to Merano was closed by Italian State Railways (FS) in 1990 and subsequently acquired by the Province of Bolzano. Track was renewed, structures and 18 stations were refurbished, and a fleet of 12 Stadler dmus was acquired.

The reopening was a huge success and today the line carries nearly 2 million passengers per year, many of them tourists. An integrated bicycle scheme has been set up which combines bicycle hire and train travel on a single ticket. Bicycles can be returned to any one of 24 hire locations, including stations.

In 2008, South Tyrol signed a series of agreements with infrastructure manager Italian Railway Network (RFI), which allowed the province to extend the route renewal concept to the Puster Valley line. Infrastructure was upgraded, eight new emus were acquired from Stadler and stations were refurbished using funding from local government and the South Tyrol Transport Authority (STA). Eight stations were modernised, two new stations have opened and two more are under construction. "Finally, thanks to the infrastructure work, we can now offer a 30-minute frequency on the entire route," says Widmann. "In 2009 we signed a further agreement with RFI that gives priority to regional services in the timetable. This allowed us to operate in a context of increased stability. Not only could we plan local rail services with confidence, but also with the buses that connect with the trains."

Growth has been so rapid that €8m is being invested to lengthen the four existing four-car trains to six cars, and Stadler is currently delivering eight extra six-car emus. Each six-car train accommodates up to 631 passengers. The trains are equipped with Wi-Fi, and interior finishes, including seat design, were chosen through consultation with passengers.

Another key driver of growth in public transport usage has been the promotion of the Alto Adige Pass, a regional contactless smartcard which is carried by more than 50% of the population.

Widmann says the system was initially criticised because it was introduced alongside a revised tariff system which increased fares. "It took a few months to calm things down and convince people about the convenience of the card and also the convenience of the tariffs, especially for frequent travellers," he says. "Today we hear practically nothing but praise, not only from local users but also from experts, politicians, students and enthusiasts of public transport throughout Europe. We want to develop the pass as a multi-functional card providing access to many services, and we have introduced dual-chip cards which combine the public transport function with other applications such as ski passes, car parking, and bicycle hire."

As a border region, South Tyrol is keen to develop services into Austria. A direct Bolzano - Innsbruck service will be launched next month and the province also wants to run hourly Fortezza - Lienz services from December 2014.

"Cross-border transport has great development potential; in my opinion people need and want this," says Widmann. "It seems more than a little anachronistic that train services and the validity of tickets should be restricted by national frontiers. We want tickets for Austrian train services to be sold in South Tyrol and vice versa."