"Why you validate some rail tickets and not others" Italy Transportation Tip by mccalpin
Italy Transportation: 359 reviews and 281 photos
And let me add something else to help clarify why you validate regional tickets and not premium tickets.
The tickets for a premium train are for a certain date and time. To change it, you have to go to the station or a travel agency to get it changed. Furthermore, with any discount tickets (like the Mini fare), I think you're allowed only one change, and you'll liable for any difference in fare (i.e., if the cheap seat that you got the first time is no longer available on the new train). This is a lot like how airlines do tickets.
I believe that the conductors have hand-held devices to confirm that you are who you are and that you have a reservation on that train - that's why all they need is your ID and your PNR code. I say "I believe" only because I haven't been on a premium train recently (I took only regional trains on my last visit).
So, your premium ticket is good for only one certain train on a certain day...
BUT, for regional trains, the ticket is good for this same distance for any time in the next 4 months. That is, when I buy a ticket for Rome to Civitavecchia on a regional train (there are some IC trains, but I'm ignoring these because they're premium trains), what I get is a ticket for XX number of kilometers (80 as I recall). Regional trains are priced by kilometer, unlike premium trains which are priced by market demand.
Since there are no reservations even possible on a regional train and since my ticket is good for XX kilometers, with this ticket, I could take any regional train going from X to Y any time in the next 4 months. This would be like me buying a bus ticket on one day, and not using it until later - exactly what you're doing if you buy a "carnet" (booklet) of tickets.
OK, if the ticket isn't tied to a train, what's to stop you from re-using it? Nothing, which is why there is this validation process, really, a date-time stamp. This indicates that you have used the ticket and therefore can't reuse it.
Conductors used to punch these things on trains, but I guess that this took too long, so now YOU have to validate on the track near the train. On walls in the station or near the track will be yellow boxes about chest-high (or lower) with a slot that you stick the ticket into. A printer in the box quickly prints the date and time stamp on the ticket in VERY small print. Now you have 4-6 hours to complete the journey. Now your ticket can't be reused for another trip. (NOTE: there is a yellow validation box in the photo at the far right)
This is why the conductors treat someone with an unvalidated ticket the same as someone with no ticket at all. Hence the discussion on maybe why you should validate something even when you don't even have a ticket.
But really, regional trains are like buses - you buy a ticket, you validate it, and you get on, even if you have to stand (note that in Rome, at least, the yellow boxes are on the buses themselves, so you validate after getting on whereas you validate before you get on for trains).
On the premium trains, they know if you boarded the train you had the reservation for, so they know if you used the ticket, so no need to do this validation stuff...
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