THE world's first private high-speed train operator, NTV, took to the rails in Italy on April 28 with the launch of its .Italo service linking Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples in direct competition with incumbent Trenitalia. NTV's managing director Mr Giuseppe Sciarrone says he is very pleased with the first five months of operation despite launching the service at a time when the Italian economy is facing one of its worst economic crises for many decades, reporting that "traffic is 35% higher than we expected."

NTV performanceAs the table shows, traffic has been building steadily apart from in August when large numbers of Italians take their summer holiday, rising from 82,600 in May, the first full month of operation, to 272,212 in September. Indeed, the increase from July to September was 39.4% Another encouraging statistic is the increase in the average load factor from 46% in June to 50% in September, which Sciarrone says is an average of 48%. This is despite the steady expansion of services.

The average income per passenger is €42, which Sciarrone says is lower than forecast. "People do not have as much money to spend as they did, so we cut our fares, as did our competitor, as is normal in a liberalised market. We are paying a lot of attention to price because if the price is too high we lose traffic."

But, as Sciarrone explained, the lower income was compensated by the higher traffic. "The product of these two factors is that we are on budget, and the overall result is good because we got more people to travel by rail," he says. "We estimate that high-speed rail in total in Italy has grown by 10% this year compared with 2011, which means that competition is working. Conventional rail traffic is falling steeply, whereas high-speed is growing strongly." Sciarrone says that the combination of a high-quality service with low fares is proving a strong pull for Italy's high-speed operators, with NTV offering three classes of travel and Trenitalia four with fares aligned to the level of quality provided.

ITALO 111NTV is the first operator of Alstom's innovative AGV. Up to August, NTV had 15 of the 25 trains on order in service. Another two were due to enter service last month allowing NTV to launch a service from Rome to Padua and Venice on October 3. By the end of the year, NTV expects to have the entire fleet in service enabling it to offer its full timetable for the first time linking Turin, Milan and Venice in the north with Rome, Naples and Salerno in the south.

Sciarrone says that AGV is performing well. "We have had less of the normal problems that one usually expects with a new fleet," he says. Punctuality has remained high and was 95.9% in September, and up to the end of August NTV had operated 99.8% of scheduled services. Sciarrone says the decision to make the train supplier responsible for maintaining the fleet "was correct."

Sciarrone brushed aside the disputes with Italian State Railways (FS) and its national infrastructure manager Italian Rail Network (RFI), and the seven month delay in launching the new service which cost NTV a lot in lost revenue. "Our results are good, which is enough for us," he told IRJ.

But this does not mean that NTV will relax its competitive pressure on Trenitalia. Non-stop NTV trains currently complete the Rome - Milan journey in 2h 45min, but Sciarrone is keen to improve on this. "We are sure we could do it in 2h 30min as we have simulated 2h 15min under perfect conditions. We have asked RFI if we can run some tests to see if we can cut the journey time, and are waiting for a date to do the tests."

In the meantime, Trenitalia is planning to take the fight back to NTV with its 360km/h ETR 1000 train, a mock-up of which was at InnoTrans. And, as this rivalry intensifies, one thing is certain: passengers will be the main beneficiaries.