17 August 2022

The Milan-Monza railway

First line in northern Italy sparked industrial growth 

The first railway line laid in northern Italy was opened on this day in 1840.

The route, almost a straight line, of the first passenger railway in northern Italy
The route, almost a straight line, of the
first passenger railway in northern Italy
The line, authorised by Ferdinand I of Austria, within whose empire the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia fell at the time, connected the city of Milan with the smaller city of Monza, covering a distance of 12.8km (eight miles).

It was the second railway line to be built on the Italian peninsula, following on from the shorter Naples-Portici line, which had been opened in October of the previous year.

Italy was a little behind in developing railways. The first steam-powered railway engine had completed its maiden journey some 56 years earlier, in England.   But once Milan-Monza was operational, quickly followed by the first section of what would become a Milan-Venice line, the rest of Italy awoke to their potential.

By the end of the 1840s, there were nine or 10 routes, mainly in the north; by unification in 1861, the network had expanded to more than 2,000km (1,240 miles) and by the early 1870s, there were some 7,000km (4,340 miles) of track, enabling travel from the outposts of Susa in the northwest, close to the border with France, and Udine in the northeast, all the way down to Maglie, south of Lecce, and Cariati, east of Cosenza, in the south.

The Milan-Monza line went under the rather grand title of the Imperiale Regno Privilegiata Strada Ferrata da Milano a Monza - the Imperial and Royal Privileged Railway from Milan to Monza. ‘Privilege’ was the equivalent of ‘concession’ in the bureaucratic language of the time.

An engine by Robert Stephenson similar to those that saw service on the Milan-Monza line
An engine by Robert Stephenson similar to those
that saw service on the Milan-Monza line 

The privilege for this railway had been granted by Emperor Ferdinand I in 1838 and construction assigned to the Holzhammer company of Bolzano in what was then Austrian South Tyrol, although the designer was the Italian engineer Guido Sarti.

The track, mounted on stone cubes sunk into the ground and with transverse bars to maintain the gauge, followed a straight course. The starting point was the former Stazione Porta Nuova with an intermediate station at Sesto San Giovanni.

In the interests of safety, tall masonry towers were built along the line, each manned by signalmen who could communicate with one another and the trains using visual and acoustic signals.

The first trains, which were pulled by locomotives built by George Rennie and Robert Stephenson in England, named Milano and Lombardia, ran four times each day, soon increasing to six.  Each train consisted of up to 21 carriages, of which passengers had a choice of first, second or third class, paying fares of 1.5 Austrian lire, 1 lira or 75 cents per journey.

Milano and Lombardia proved rather unreliable, but the services were popular nonetheless. By the end of December, more than 150,000 passengers had been carried and four new locomotives, named Lambro, Brianza, Monza and Adda, were acquired.

The main building of the former Stazione Porta Nuova now houses a luxury boutique hotel
The main building of the former Stazione Porta
Nuova now houses a luxury boutique hotel 
As well as providing a service to the public that was much faster than the horse-drawn carriage that railways and the automobile would ultimately replace, the new train connection spurred the growth of industry.

Sesto San Giovanni saw an expansion in the number of spinning mills and the Italian Post Office began to use the line to transport mail. Industry in Monza also began to expand.

The Austrian government originally intended the line to be extended to Bergamo via one branch and to Como via another. In the event, the project was scaled down to allow just the Como leg. The first extensions, to Camnago-Lentate and Camerlata, were completed in 1849, although it was 1875 before it reached Como. 

Today, the Milan-Monza section is part of a line extending through Como to Chiasso in Switzerland. It began to operate electrically powered trains in 1899 and, now fully electrified, the section also carries trains to Bergamo as well as intercity trains linking Milan with Basel and Zurich. 

Monza's beautiful 13th century  town hall, the Arengario
Monza's beautiful 13th century 
town hall, the Arengario
Travel tip:

The city of Monza is famous for its Grand Prix motor racing circuit, which hosts the Formula One Italian Grand Prix. The city is also home to the Iron Crown of Lombardy - the Corona Ferrea - a circlet of gold with a central iron band, which according to legend, was beaten out of a nail from Christ’s true cross and was found by Saint Helena in the Holy Land. The crown is believed to have been given to the city of Monza in the sixth century and is kept in a chapel in the 13th century Basilica of San Giovanni Battista, the city’s cathedral. When Napoleon Bonaparte was declared King of Italy in 1805, he was crowned in the Duomo in Milan and the Iron Crown had to be fetched from Monza before the ceremony. During his coronation, Napoleon is reported to have picked up the precious relic, announced that God had given it to him, and placed it on his own head. In Piazza Roma, the city's 13th century Arengario - town hall - has echoes of the Palazzo della Ragione in Milan.

The city of Bolzano, in Alto Adige, has a backdrop of lush, tree-lined mountains
The city of Bolzano, in Alto Adige, has a backdrop
of lush, tree-lined mountains 
Travel tip:

Bolzano, home of the Holzhammer company commissioned to build the Milan-Monza railway line, is a city in the South Tyrol province of what is now northern Italy, also known as Alto Adige. It is in a valley flanked by hills covered in lush vineyards. A gateway to the Dolomites mountain range in the Italian Alps, it has a medieval city centre famous for its wooden market stalls, selling Alpine cheeses and hams and loaves of dark, seeded bread. One of the features of the city is the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which features a Neolithic mummy called Ötzi the Iceman. Buildings of note include the imposing 13th-century Mareccio Castle, and the Duomo di Bolzano with its Romanesque and Gothic architecture. With a population of 108,000 in the city and 250,000 including surrounding suburbs, towns and villages, it is one of the largest urban areas in the Alpine region. Three languages - Italian, German and a local language called Ladin - are spoken in the area, which in 2020 was ranked joint first with Bologna for the best standard of living in Italy.

Also on this day:

1498: Cesare Borgia resigns as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church

1740: Prospero Lambertini elected as Pope Benedict XIV

2008: The death of oil tycoon Franco Sensi


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