Inside the Incredibly Groovy ‘Harlequin’ Train From 1960 Still Running in Italy

L’Arlecchino looks like nothing else on earth, and it can blast you through the Italian countryside at up to 112 mph.

byJames Gilboy|
FS Italiane locomotive ETR 252 in a station
Chris Ogilvie on YouTube


The golden age of rail travel—of passing the miles in comfort and style, with more than a Biscoff to eat—may seem like an irretrievable relic of times past. That's not the case, especially in Italy, where the country's national railway has restored the iconic historic express train L'Arlecchino to use in passenger service.

L'Arlecchino, meaning "The Harlequin," is the colloquial name for the FS Italiane Class ETR 250; a shortened four-car derivative of the earlier, larger ETR 300 Settebello. The train gets its name from its colorful interior, which with vinyl stools and striped curtains in the leading observation car resembles that of a retro soda fountain. It's an electric multiple unit (or EMU), meaning it's a combination of self-propelled carriages that together make 1,754 horsepower according to Trainspo. It can whisk up to 164 people through the Italian countryside at speeds up to 112 mph.

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The ETR 250 was originally built in 1960 as a series of four trains that entered service just in time for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. The class saw regular use until 1986, when three of the units were refurbished for use in charter service, before later being scrapped around the turn of the millennium. Unit 252 however escaped this fate, and in 2016 was sent to Trenitalia's depot in Ancona for a complete refresh—and modernization.

That started with upgrading L'Arlecchino's electronics, from the converters that run ancillaries like the HVAC and lighting to the traction motors and controls. Naturally, that included integrating modern safety-critical systems like cab signaling, and central locking doors. It also involved a full restoration of the train's characteristic interior, with reupholstered vinyl seats and a modernized kitchen car. (No McD's here though.)

ETR 252 was meant to reenter service in 2019, at a time when interest in vintage rail travel was enjoying a resurgence in Italy. A survey by FS Italiane found that 54% of Italians were interested in traveling in restored classic trains, and they put their money where their mouth is by boosting excursion ridership 78% from 2014 to 2018.

While the train's return may have been delayed, ETR 252 is indeed back in the saddle as of October 3, 2021, according to Fondazione FS. A video taken on board a trip in May shows the condition of The Harlequin to be mint from bottom to top, from the observation car to the bar area and even the cab. An affogato aboard L'Arlecchino certainly seems like one of those experiences worth traveling for—especially if you can double down with a stint in one of FS Italiane's other old oddities.

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