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The Vatican City State Railway

Arms of the Vatican City State

[Updated: 28.01.2001]



Origins of the Vatican City State Railway

The Lateran Treaty, concluded in Rome on the 11th February, 1929, between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy, specified in Art.6 that Italy would provide for the construction of a railway station within the Vatican City and its connection to the remainder of the Italian railway network, with a junction in the vicinity of the station of Rome St Peters (Roma - San Pietro).

The implementation of this provision was entrusted to the Directorate of New Railway Construction of the Ministry of Public Works of the Kingdom of Italy. Plans were put in hand immediately, it having been established at the outset that the railway should be completed within one year from the date of the ratification of the Treaty.

The master plan for the Vatican City located the railway station and its installations in the area between the public Piazza Santa Marta and the Governor’s Palace, where significant earthworks were needed in order to bring the height of the ground to 38m above sea level, the same as the concourse of St Peters station. Grafting the new branch on to the existing line offered no difficulty, but the widening of the old station where it ran into the Hill of Gelsomino and the building of the viaduct would present considerable problems.

In spite of the difficulties, more serious than one might think given the shortness of the railway, plans were completed with unusual rapidity and work began on 3rd April, 1929.

The first trial railway locomotive entered the Vatican in March, 1932, but the ratification of the necessary Railway Convention between the Holy See and Italy did not take place until 12th September, 1934 and in October, 1934 representatives of the Ministry of Public Works handed over the entire portion of the railway located within the walls of the Vatican City to the representatives of the Vatican City State, and the portion in Italian territory to those of the State Railways (FS).

The first legislative provision of the Vatican City State regarding its railway is contained in Legge sulle fonti del diritto n.II of 7th June, 1929 in which it was laid down that Italian legislation would be observed for the railway service (art.20, c.4). The technical management and business management of the railway service at first remained separate. According to Regolamento per gli Uffici e Servizi del Governatorato, n.XXXIII of 5th December, 1932, the technical sector was the responsibility of the Railways and Transport Department of the Communications Section, reporting to the Central Office of Technical Services, while the movement of goods and the day to day operation was that of the Annona and Financial Section, reporting to the Central Office of the Secretariat. It is to be noted that these regulations were enacted while the railway installations were still in the course of construction. According to Modificazioni al Regolamento 5 dicembre 1932 n.XXXIII per gli Uffici e Servizi del Governatorato, n.LIII of 28th December, 1934, the Transport and Railway Department was incorporated in the Technical-Financial Section, reporting to the Office of the Director General of Financial Services, to which the Annona and Financial Section also reported (art.5, II, c, and art.34).

On 27th December, 1939 the Law was promulgated which gave to the Governor of the State the legal power to set up an office for the import, export, examination and allocation of merchandise (n.IV), followed by n.VI on the 30th of the same month. To this new Goods Office came, amongst other things, the putting in place of the operations and formalities arising out of the Railway Convention of 20th December, 1933, between the Holy See and Italy. According to Legge sul Governo della Città del Vaticano n.LI of 24th June, 1969, the Office was turned over to the control of the General Secretariat (art.5, I, 6). On 1st April, 1977, with Decreto della Pontificia Commissione per lo Stato della Città del Vaticano in relazione alle attribuzioni dell’Ufficio Merci n.CXXXIV the movement and operation of the Vatican Railway were officially assigned to the Goods Office (already expected to manage those functions, according to an internal office document: Attribuzioni e funzioni dell’Ufficio Merci of 31st March, 1976). The official head of the Goods Office and chief executive in charge of the railway today is Dr.Ing. Gr.Uff. Daniel Dalva, Director of General Services, reporting to the Office of the Director General of Technical Services of the Governor of the Vatican City State.

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Description of the railway line

The Railway and St Peter's Basilica
On the left, behind the Dome of St Peters, the Vatican railway station and tracks

The Vatican City State Railway leaves the main Rome to Viterbo railway line at the Viterbo end of Rome St Peters station and passes over the valley of the Gelsomino at a height of about 11 metres, a little distance from the viaduct of the aforementioned railway. The crossing is accomplished by means of a masonry viaduct of 8 arches with an opening of 15.30 metres, which represents the major construction of the railway in Italian territory. The Gelsomino Viaduct, between the Concourse of St Peters station and the Viale Vaticano comprises 8 arches of 15.30 metres opening. The timpani above the piers are adorned with the Lictoral Fasces and the Arms of Savoy. The viaduct is part curved, part straight, following the Via Gregorio VII. The arches are separated into two groups of 4, separated by an abutment. The piers rise 6.85 metres from street level and the keystones of the arches are 9.90 metres above the ground. The viaduct is 143.12 metres long between the extreme abutments and 9.50 metres wide between the inner faces of the parapets. The viaduct is constructed entirely of masonry, faced with Travertine and brick.

Map showing the Vatican Railway

With its last arch, the viaduct passes over the Via Aurelia and, about 70 metres from the end of the viaduct, it passes through the walls of the Vatican by a wide arch equipped with a sliding iron gate and enters the Vatican City State to where, a few tens of metres away, in a supremely delightful position among gardens and flower-beds, rises the building of the Vatican railway station. The air is dominated by the dome of St Peters, which itself is close by. Leaving the station building by the entrance porch and standing in the square outside, it leaves no room for wonder that His Holiness Pius XI, visiting the works in the course of their completion and turning to look at the monument, should exclaim “This is the most beautiful station in the World!...” The concourse of the station with its rails and associated installations are laid in a wide but shallow trench not requiring large retaining walls so as not to interfere with the beauty of the landscape, strewn around with green gardens that make a restful and poetic setting for the other buildings of the Vatican City State, among them the Governor’s Palace.

Vatican Station and Heliport
The railway station and heliport (in the foreground) of the Vatican City State

As has been said, the Viale Vaticano was interrupted by the line, it not being technically possible to arrange for the road to pass over or under the railway. Therefore, two stairways were constructed beside the end walls of the viaduct, to allow quicker pedestrian access between the Viale and the Via Aurelia. The higher part of the Viale was also connected to the lower part by means of a short link. Two other roads that, with the Via Aurelia, ran through the valley of the Gelsomino, namely the Via delle Cave and the Via del Gelsomino, were also interrupted, and diverted to join the Via Aurelia.

Gelsomino Viaduct
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Characteristics of the line and its installations

From the centre of the passenger building of Rome St Peters station, the railway runs straight for 299.65 metres. It then turns to the right on a curve with radius 250 metres, which it follows approximately to the centre of the Gelsomino viaduct. After this ensues a straight section of 81.29 metres, then a polycentric curve of length 218.43 metres, formed of three successive arcs: the first section, with a radius of 201.80 metres, passes through the Entrance Gateway of the Vatican City State; the second section, with a radius of 400 metres, continues to the centre of the Vatican station building; the third section has a radius of 240.60 metres. After this, the line returns to being straight for 112.30 metres, to its end in a tunnel.

Therefore, from the centre of the passenger building of Rome St Peters station, as described in the preceding paragraph, to the end of the tunnel in the Vatican, three straights and two curves are encountered, of total length 862.78 metres. If one adds to this the distance of 408.73 metres between the centre of Rome St Peters and the end of the headshunt in the direction of Rome Trastevere, the total length obtained between the extremes of movement on the railway is 1270.41 metres. If, instead, one restricts the measure of distance to that between the centre of Rome St Peters station and the centre of the Vatican station, the length is 624.25 metres.

From the point of view of height, the master plan specified an altitude of 38 metres, so that the section of the railway between the two stations is exactly level. However, on the section beyond the concourse of Rome St Peters in the direction of Rome Trastevere for a distance of 253.63 meters, and also on the section in the Vatican City beyond the centre of the station building for a distance of 226.78 metres, light gradients were introduced, in the former case to correspond with that of the existing Rome to Viterbo line and in the latter in order to facilitate water drainage from the tunnel and the cutting leading to it.

For the equipment of the line, rails with a weight of 36 kg/m were adopted, laid on 12 sleepers per 9 metre length or 16 sleepers per 12 metre length. Pointwork in the Vatican station is hand operated. Rome St Peters station and the Vatican station are connected by telephone and telegraph.

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The Entrance Gateway to the Vatican

The Entrance Gateway to the Vatican City State consists of an arch pierced through the walls of the Vatican, equipped with a sliding iron gate of two leaves. The arch, with an opening of 16.70 metres, is executed in small, sand-filled bricks and Travertine, and the keystones are decorated with two large Coats of Arms of His Holiness Pius XI. Each leaf of the gate is constructed of a solid iron frame clad on both sides with a sheet of 8mm in thickness, decorated with a pattern of large teeth. They slide into recesses of the arch pierced in the walls of the Vatican by means of a small railway bogie front and rear, running on a line of 48cm gauge, and can be manoeuvred by hand or by motor. The duration of the movement turns out to be about one minute. The total weight of the hardware is 35.5 tonnes. The bell indicating the start of a movement has been supplemented by a television camera.

Entrance Gateway and Station
The Entrance Gateway and the Vatican railway station
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The Vatican Station

From a strictly railway point of view, the equipment of the station is very simple, given its special nature. The concourse of the Vatican Station is served by two inteconnecting railway lines, one of which is located alongside the front platform, which is 10 metres wide and partly covered by a canopy. Beyond the track beside the passenger platform and a runround loop parallel to it, are two short sections of line for goods service, one able to take four wagons at a loading platform, the other serving as a shunting lead and giving access to the headshunt in the tunnel. The said tunnel has a length of 96.58 metres, of which 31.48 metres are double track and 65.10 metres single track. It was excavated in compact marble and fully lined. The facade of the tunnel entrance was constructed of stone cut from the tunnel.

The steeply sloping strata where the concourse was built, not to mention the need to occupy no more space than was strictly necessary, led to the adoption of retaining walls, which start from and rise along the length of the concourse. A type of wall with a slope of the external face of 30 centimetres for every metre of height was adopted, except for a section of about 27 metres executed with a vertical wall, topped with a small terrace with an elegant Travertine balustrade, facing the front of the station building.

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The Station Building

A little over 20 metres from the Entrance Gateway to the Vatican City, rises the sober passenger building designed to the plan of the master of appealing architecture, Ing. Gr.Uff. Giuseppe Momo, confidential architect to His Holiness Pius XI, and in charge of the direction of the artistic and architectural parts of the work.

The Vatican station building
The Vatican railway station building

This building, opened in 1933, is 61 metres long by 21.50 metres wide. The central part is 16.85 metres high and the two lateral wings 5.95 metres. A short canopy in reinforced concrete has been constructed from the central part on the building on the side facing the railway. An extension has been constructed from the side facing the external square, to allow cars to stop under cover, in front of the entrance door to the station hall.

The tiny Vatican railway station, in anticipation of its having to welcome Popes and VIPs, was furnished with a certain sumptuousness and decorated in marble. In the central part of the building is a great hall, with an elegant paved floor and a rich pediment in coloured marble; it has a ceiling encased in stucco, and is adorned with eight monolithic columns executed in chive green Versilian marble from the quarries near Serravezza. All the marbles in the hall are modern and came from Italian quarries. The eight green columns were obtained from a single block of marble carved out of the mountainside. As their function is purely decorative and not structural, they were put into position after the huge architraves of reinforced concrete that they appear to support. To either side of the great hall are found rooms for supervision and operations management.

The exterior of the building is clad entirely in Travertine (except for the upper part of the railway side of the building, above the canopy, which is covered with simulated Travertine) and enriched with several sculptures, the work of Professor Eduardo Rubino. These consist of a Coat of Arms of His Holiness Pius XI, supported by two figures representing Thought and Action, placed above the extension towards the external square; and two large bas reliefs inspired by biblical stories of travel, placed low down to either side, and intended to symbolise the most ancient and the most modern means of transport for the propagation of the faith, that is to say the boat of St Peter in recollection of his miraculous draught of fish, and the episode of the Prophet Elias in his fiery chariot, symbolising the other mode of transport, that of air.

Governor's Palace
The Governor’s Palace of the Vatican City State
with the railway lines on the left
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Uses of the Vatican Railway Station

Much has been written on the potential functions and usefulness of the Vatican railway, that envisaged multitudes of travellers arriving and departing, especially during the Jubilees and on the occasion of great religious ceremonies. The Pope and visiting VIPs would have used the railway, and the station would be the first place that they would encounter. That official thought had been inclined in this direction is shown by the luxurious marble decorations of the reception rooms of the station. The Illustrazione Vaticana in 1932, after speaking of the train of Pius XI, reported that another Papal train “(...) is being prepared for the new Vatican City railway and that this, like the existing [train] of Pius IX, will be not only worthy of the Italian industry, but above all of the August Personage of the Pontiff.” The Papal train was never realised. What is more, the Vatican does not employ any railwaymen, nor does it have any rolling stock registered to it.

Pius XI, although as a result of the reconciliation with the Italian State in 1929, wanted a railway station in the Vatican, never did travel by train. He confined himself to the walls of the Vatican, as had his predecessors since the taking of the Porta Pia in 1870. Instead, before the restoration of his temporal powers, the promoter of several railway projects relating to the Papal State travelled in the train of Pius XI.

The first Pontiff to use the Vatican railway station was John XXIII, on 4th October, 1962, on the occasion of his pilgrimage to Loreto and Assisi “for the more fervent invocation of heavenly aid in the imminence of the Ecumenical Council,” in preparation for the Vatican II Council that was to begin a week later. The Holy Father left on his journey to Loreto and returned from Assisi with the Italian Presidential train placed at his disposal, a journey that was followed by many people thanks to Eurovision.

From Pius XI to today, the Vatican Station, for all its proper identity as a railway station, confirmed by agreement and convention, came to be associated almost exclusively with a discreet goods traffic (ten years or so ago the hall was converted into the Goods Office and split in two in order to accommodate a numismatic and philatelic museum on the first floor), the level of which has today reduced to nearly zero because traffic by rubber tyre is more convenient, faster, and more certain, and the station has only been used occasionally for passenger trains. On 11th April, 1959, a special passenger convoy departed from the Vatican railway station, placed at disposal of the Vatican by th Italian Railways, for the purpose of translating the remains of Pius X to Venice at the wish of John XXIII (the cortège travelled to Termini station, where it met that of Don Bosco who would be carried, solemnly and in procession, into St Peters Basilica). In recent years the Vatican station has been used only on rare occasions by trains of ordinary passengers (for example, a train of invalids organised by UNITALSI; a group of Perugian tourists who had obtained a special train from the State Railways for a visit to the Sistine Chapel; a “green train”; and a steam train carrying boys on a tour around Italy).

Entrance Gateway, from the Station
The Entrance Gateway, seen from the Vatican railway station

John Paul II used the Vatican railway station for the first time on 8th November, 1979, for a symbolic journey aboard the Italian State Railways train “Arlecchino”, on the occasion of the 21st “Railwaymen’s Day”, for a meeting with shunters of the State Railways at Salario (Rome), travelling via Rome St Peters, Rome Trastevere and Rome Termini.

24th January 2002
Day of Prayer
for World Peace
  Logo of Assisi Pilgrimage

John Paul II used the Vatican Railway again in order to reach Santa Maria of the Angels (Assisi) on a “special pilgrimage” to meet with representatives of various religions in a Day of Prayer for World Peace, on 24th January, 2002, with a train of the Italian State Railways. Thus the Pope, who has travelled millions of kilometres by air, is seated in a railway carriage leaving the station of his tiny state.

Pope aboard train (1)      Pope aboard train (2)
© www.catholicpressphoto.com

Although John Paul II has used railways several times since his election to the Throne of St Peter, 24th January, 2002 will be the first time that he has used the Vatican station to leave Rome. During his Pontificate, John Paul II has several times used trains other than from the Vatican: in January, 1982 in Argentina on an express Presidential convoy; in May, 1982 in Portugal because of bad weather; in June, 1984 from Zürich to Freiburg; in September, 1984 along the St Lawrence River, in Canada, travelling to Montreal; in 1985 in Belgium and the Netherlands; and in February, 1986, on returning from India, from Naples to Rome, because the airports of Rome were snowbound.

[Sources: Ministero dei Lavori Pubblici del Regno d’Italia, La ferrovia per lo Stato della Città del Vaticano, Roma, Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1934, 50 pagine con fotografie; G. Pini, La ferrovia della Città del Vaticano, ivi 1934; F. Zanetti, Dalle prime ferrovie dello Stato Pontificio a quella dello Stato della Città del Vaticano, in L’Illustrazione Vaticana, 3 (1932), pp. 376-378; Attività della Santa Sede; Acta Apostolicae Sedis; Annuario Pontificio]

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