Ferrovia Trento - Malé

Some historical notes compiled by Gregory Beecroft

The historical elements on this page owe much to the website of the Ferrovia Trento - Malè.

This page was updated on 14 April 2002,
(and therefore does not include the extension beyond Malé to Marilleva, opened 4 May 2003 (R.3014).


1] In the second half of the 19th century, Trentino was a poor outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria had lost the provinces of Lombardia and Veneto to Italy, so a customs barrier separated Trentino from its traditional trading areas. A series of natural disasters, including floods and crop diseases, increased the area’s economic difficulties. The opening of the Brennerbahn along the valley of the river Adige in 1867 greatly improved transport links with the rest of Austro-Hungary, and led to calls for construction of branch lines to assist development of the region. However, it was not until the 1890s that progress was made. The 760mm-gauge Mori - Tiva del Garda line was completed in 1891 between Mori, south of Rovereto, and Tiva del Garda, at the north end of Lake Garda. The standard-gauge Valsunga line from Trento to Tezze, now part of the Trento - Venezia line, opened in 1896.

2] On 17 October 1891 the Consiglio Comunale di Trento (= city council) unanimously adopted a proposal by the mayor that narrow-gauge railways be built along the nearby Giudicarie, Avisio and Noce valleys. However, there would be great difficulties in raising money to pay for these schemes and there was opposition from the authorities of Bolzano, in neighbouring Süd-Tirol. There was considerable rivalry between the German-speaking Tiroleans and the people of Trentino, who spoke Italian. The Tiroleans particularly feared that economic development in Trentino would enable the province to seek greater autonomy and closer links with its Italian neighbours. They were also wanting to raise funds for their own railway from Egna, on the Brennerbahn, to Predazzo.

3] After some ten years of further discussion, and following withdrawal of the Giudicarie and Predazzo schemes, the government in Wien agreed in principle that the Noce Valley line could be built. This was to be a narrow-gauge electric tramway, running from Trento to Malè, with a branch line from Dermulo to Mendola, and the government would guarantee the construction cost. Unfortunately, further work on designs and estimates revealed that the cost would be greater than expected, and it was not until 1905 that a concession for the line was granted to the Comune di Trento. However, the line was to be built and operated by the ‘imperial and royal’ Austrian state railways, the kaiserliche-königliche österreichische Staatsbahnen. Work started in spring 1905 and was completed in autumn 1909.

4] The Trento - Malè tramway as built was 60km long, of which 43km were street-running. The Dermulo - Mendola branch was about 25km long. The line was metre-gauge and electrified at 800V dc, power coming from a hydro-electric power station on the river Sarca. The maximum gradient was about 1 in 20 and curves had a minimum radius of 28m. The tramway was the longest electric line anywhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

5] Rolling-stock built for the opening of the line comprised 10 bogie motor coaches, 12 two-axle trailer coaches, three postal vans and 35 assorted goods wagons. All vehicles were built by Grazer Waggon- und Maschinen-Fabriks AG of Graz, with electrical equipment by AEG-Union Elektrizitätsgesellschaft of Wien. The vehicles were typical of their period, with timber bodies, and the motor coaches had two bow collectors to pick up current.

6] Trams started running between Trento and Cles on 14 September 1909. The official opening ceremony was on 11 October 1909, with a regular service operating to Mendola and Malè from the following day.

7] Traffic developed well and within five years the rolling-stock fleet had been augmented by two further motor coaches, four trailers, two goods motor coaches (known as ‘locomotives’) and some additional goods wagons. In summer 1914 nine Trento - Malè services ran daily, all exceedingly slow, most taking over four hours each way. Six Dermulo - Mendola services ran in summer, but only four during the winter. In addition, various short workings operated, including a San Michele - Mezzolombardo shuttle.

8] Although Austro-Hungary was one of the combatants, the outbreak of World War I had little impact on Trentino. However, in May 1915, following conclusion of a secret treaty with Britain and its allies, the Italians declared war on Austro-Hungary. Most fighting around Trentino was in the area of Mount Pasubio (between Rovereto and Schio), but the Tonale Pass, at the head of the Noce Valley, just over 30km from Malè was of great importance. This was the principal route through the mountains between Trentino and Lombardia and its defence was of critical importance.

9] The Trento - Malè line played a vital role in supplying Austrian troops at the pass, and various metre-gauge steam locomotives were obtained to work the extra goods trains. Eight were present at the end of the war, including a Krauss 0-6-2T tank-engine from the Innsbruck - Igls Innsbrucker Mittelgebirgsbahn, and a number of SLM 0-6-0T tank-locomotives similar to the type G3/3 used on the Brünigbahn in Switzerland.

10] Following the armistice in November 1918, the terms of the Italians’ treaty were revealed. Considerable tracts of Austro-Hungary, including Trentino and Süd-Tirol, were immediately annexed to Italy. Responsibility for the railways in the area, including the Trento - Malè line, passed to the Italian state railways, Ferrovie dello Stato (FS).

11] The line needed renewal, but the new Italian owners deferred spending. By the early 1930s matters were serious and it was proposed to shut down the entire system. In 1934 the Dermulo - Mendola branch closed and its trains were replaced by buses. The Trento - Malè line survived only because its operation was taken over by a private company, Società Anonima Trasporti Pubblici, which undertook not to seek public finance for the service.

12] In World War II the line was not as much in the front line as it had been in World War I, but it did suffer bombing, including damage to the depot at Trento. Maintenance was the minimum necessary to keep the trams running. By 1945 the system again needed complete reconstruction, but there was considerable disagreement as to what should be done.

13] The Trentino provincial authorities supported construction of a new standard-gauge branch to Malè from a junction at Mezzocorona on the Trento - Bolzano (- Brennero) line. There were those who thought that the entire line should be abandoned and replaced by buses. However, the Comune di Trento wanted the line rebuilt throughout as a metre-gauge railway, and they had a unique advantage. They still held the concession granted in 1905 and indeed in 1906 had incorporated their own railway company, the Ferrovia Locale Trento Malè. The concession may have been granted by the Austrian Emperor, but it was still valid and it entitled the Comune’s railway company to rebuild and operate the line. Only the money was lacking.

14] At length, the Comune won political support for their plans and in 1951 the Italian government appropriated 2300 million lire for reconstruction of the line. Work started in 1953 but was soon suspended when, once again, it was found necessary to revise the plans and the cost went up. The urgent need to resolve the technical and financial problems was demonstrated in 1954, when it became necessary to suspend rail services between Cles and Malè, due to the dire state of the infrastructure. Buses operated instead.

15] Work resumed in 1956 after some economies had been made. The new line was substantially different from the old one; in particular all street-running was abandoned, except in Trento, and the railway otherwise had its own formation throughout. This reduced its length by 4km. The maximum gradient was about the same as before, but the minimum curve was increased to 80m. Second-hand rails were used from Trento to Mezzolombardo, but the track on the Mezzolombardo - Malè section was entirely new. The rebuilt line came into use between Cles and Dermulo in 1959 and was largely completed to Trento in 1960. The entire new route was formally inaugurated on 24 June 1961, reinstating a rail service to Malè.

16] This left the rolling-stock still to be replaced, and it was intended to change the electrification system to 3000V dc, as used by FS on the main line. Initially, state finance was given only for renewal of the fixed equipment and not for new trains, so a delay ensued while a further grant was negotiated. The new trains finally entered service on 13 December 1964. They were built by Stanga, with bogies and electrical equipment by TIBB, and comprised five electric motor coaches and three articulated triple units. All of the old rolling-stock, except some of the goods wagons, was withdrawn.

17] The line, as originally built, had its Trento terminus at Torre Verde, close to the old city-centre, but it was desired to divert the line to a new station adjacent to the FS one. In anticipation of this, when the voltage was changed the line was cut back to the rolling-stock depot to the north of the city-centre, where a supposedly-temporary passenger station was established. This ended street-running entirely.

18] The new trains had a maximum speed of 90km/h, which could be achieved on the Trento - Mezzolombardo section at least, and they took 80 minutes from Trento to Malè. This was an enormous improvement over the old tramway and passenger numbers increased dramatically. In 1965 between 5,000 and 6,000 passenger journeys daily were recorded. Additional rolling-stock was required and in 1967 the company was able to acquire two motor coaches from the closed Ferrovia della Dolomiti, though these had to be converted from 950mm to metre-gauge. More radical reconstruction was required when a couple of standard-gauge driving trailers were obtained from the defunct Ferrovia Mantova - Peschiera during the 1970s.

19] The company also invested in developing freight traffic, and from 1968 were able to convey standard-gauge wagons on their metre-gauge tracks. For this purpose a Bo-Bo electric locomotive was obtained, together with a number of transporter-wagons and Langbein transporter-bogies. By the mid-1970s traffic had developed well and about that time a siding was laid for traffic from a fruit warehouse at Mollaro. Unfortunately, the 400 standard-gauge wagons conveyed in 1974 proved to be a peak that was never surpassed, and transporter traffic has effectively ceased.

20] However, standard-gauge freight traffic continues by other means. In 1972 a third rail was laid from Trento Fizli marshalling-yard as far as an electrical-products factory at Gardolo, to which FS work standard-gauge wagons.

21] During the 1980s various studies considered different aspects of the line’s development, including a more satisfactory terminus in Trento, additional rolling-stock, and extension of the line from Malè to Fucine at the foot of the Tonale Pass. Government agreement was given to these schemes in 1987, though only the first 10km of the extension as far as Mezzana was approved. The Ferrovia Trento Malè contributed 60 million lire towards the estimated 5000 million lire cost of the construction work.

22] Four new articulated electric units were obtained from FIREMA in 1994-95 and on 26 October 1995 the new station at Trento was ceremonially opened. This is immediately north of, and adjacent to, the FS station and has three platform faces, all under cover. Work continued along the line, renewing electrification equipment, communications and signalling systems.

23] From the new terminus at Trento the line passes the rolling-stock depot and the FS marshalling yards. For the first 18km the railway follows the river Adige, running parallel with the FS Trento - Bolzano line. However, while the main line runs mostly on the west side of the valley, the FTM stays on the more populated east and has a healthy local traffic. For a kilometre or so through Nave San Felice the two lines share the same embankment. The FTM crosses over the FS line approaching Mezzocorona, where the railways have separate stations. From here the FTM turns north west up the valley of the river Noce to Mezzolombardo, the line’s principal town apart from Trento. The FTM civil engineer has a depot here. From Mezzolombardo the line climbs steeply up the valley, giving spectacular views from the eastern slope to the Brenta mountain range to the west.

24] At Dermulo the river Noce is in a deep gorge which the railway crosses on the San Giustina bridge. Built when the line was reconstructed, this is a reinforced concrete structure with a single span of 78m and track 140m above the river. Until completion of the Mala bridge on the Beograd - Bar line in 1976, it was the highest railway bridge in the world. Immediately upstream the river is dammed and as the line climbs to Cles a fine view is offered over the lake. A lengthy tunnel beyond Cles cuts off a bend in the valley and is one of the main reasons why reconstruction shortened the line. For the last 18km to Malè the railway runs south-west, running along the northern slope of the valley, which is here much less populated than further down.

25] Some of the stations are no more than basic halts. The buildings at the principal stations all appear to date from the 1950s reconstruction. The line is single-track throughout, with passing-loops at the main stations.

26] Trains run at irregular intervals, but are approximately hourly. Most call at all stations; the few that call only at the main towns run at times to suit people travelling to work. Despite the much greater population at the lower end of the line, almost all trains run through from Trento to Malè, with relatively few short workings to Mezzolombardo. The service is slightly reduced on Sundays, but for most of the year walking, skiing and other leisure pursuits provide ample weekend traffic. FTM are also significant bus-operators and run several routes in connection with the trains, including the Dermulo - Mendola rail-replacement service. As elsewhere in Italy, fares are cheap, a Trento - Malè ordinary return costing EUR7.60 in early 2002.

27] Target opening-date for the Malè - Mezzana extension was 2001, but this was not met, though work was well-advanced in spring 2002, and opening was said to be ‘imminent’. With Malè terminus located in the centre of the village it was not possible just to prolong the line from there. The extension therefore branches off the old line on the edge of Malè and runs via a new station on the south side of the village. It then continues on a concrete viaduct along the valley. Eight new trains are on order.

28] The main reason for construction of the line is to provide access to ski-slopes in an environmentally-sound manner. At Mezzana the line will connect with ski-lifts, and access by car will be discouraged. It is an interesting contrast that the original line was built to stimulate economic development, but the extension is to help protect the region from the effects of human activity.

29] A note on the company name may be of interest. Originally established as Ferrovia Locale Trento Malè, the railway later became known as Ferrovia Elettrica Trento Malè, and subsequently as simply Ferrovia Trento Malè. Local transport in the area is now promoted and co-ordinated by Trasporto Integrato Provincia Autonoma di Trento, but the railway operating company is still Ferrovia Trento Malè.

© 2002 Gregory Beecroft