Mussolini, railways & myth

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14 August 2007

No claim has led to more nodding heads in the UK, than the anecdote that “Mussolini got trains to run on time by threatening to shoot drivers”. Typical examples are in “Signal Failure: Politics & Britain’s Railways” by David Wragg, 2004, page 117: ‘Mussolini made the trains run on time’; and John McKie, writing in the Daily Record on 28 July 2007:’Say what you like about Benito Mussolini, he made the trains run on time’.

It is noticeable that no journalist nor critic quotes a traceable source. Letters to the media requesting the source or disputing the claim are unanswered. Contact with the Ital­ian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Institute failed to confirm the claim, or identify any possible source. One person at the Embassy said it was a myth. The Institute referred me to a University professor, from whom no reply was received. I attempted to lay this ghost to rest in a recent book [1], but it is still popping up.

“Mussolini cared nothing for public opinion, which in every country was simply manufactured by newspaper owners as he knew only too well from personal experience”.[2]  None was more skilled in using propaganda (aka myth) than Mussolini. If UK editors believed everything he said, more fool them.

The reality is that, even Mussolini himself did not claim - in his 1937 autobiography - that Italian trains ran on time, much less that he was the architect. His autobiography does not mention a threat to drivers, nor claim that railways were reliable, but does say that he got rid of critical editors and politicians. If he could openly admit to disposing of opposition, he would have had no qualms about claiming his success in railway operations, by whatever means - had that been a fact. Logic suggests that if train drivers had been so threatened, there would have been a high incidence of absence from work due to simulated illness, and a failure of other staff to take promotion to the job as driver. Both would seriously delay trains.

His autobiography mentions that he “imposed an eight hour day on all workers”.[3]  Similar action here would have prevented traffic loss to road, and allowed railways to invest more and further improve services. Instead of pursuing the course adopted by Italy, UK Government had imposed an eight hour day for all railway employees in 1919, despite protests by the companies that this, following their iniquitous treatment during World War 1, would push many rural and secondary companies deep into insolvency.[4] This fear was addressed by Government forcing 123 railway companies to merge into four groups (The Big Four) in 1923, so that the profitable companies were compelled to subsidise the rest.

Of eight biographies of Mussolini, Palla had no reference to railways.[5] Fermi’s only reference to railways is that a new station was built in Rome to welcome and impress Hitler in 1938.[6] Blinkhorn says that “main line trains ran on time”[7], but quotes no source and no data.

Ridley says that the belief prevalent among his British admirers that Mussolini had made the trains run on time “aroused much ridicule among intellectuals”.[8]

Smith wrote that “the Italian railway system had been run down during WW1, but had been much improved between the Wars. The claim was advanced that Italian trains were the envy of Europe. This was an exaggeration by Mussolini who did his best to make the train service into a symbol of fascist efficiency and managed to conceal much that had been done before 1922 (before he became Prime Minister). His propaganda was very successful, yet some travellers reported that the celebrated trains running universally on time, were to some extent a convenient myth”. 

“Coal had to come by sea when, in World War II, it ought to have come overland by rail. Only two of the nine railroads through the Alps had been provided with double tracks and capacity was estimated to be little more than a quarter of Italy’s peacetime needs”.

“There was a major shortage of, in excess of 10,000 trucks in WW2, because trains running on time had become one of the accepted myths of fascism and Mussolini had never charged anyone with the task of planning communication in the event of war”.

“Propagandists were instructed to proclaim that Italy was ahead in every field of endeavour - more men of genius, railways faster, ships bigger, etc.”[9]

Bosworth’s only references to trains or railways in his biography are that [Mussolini] “May have made the trains run on time, as his propaganda declared, but wars it seemed were a different matter”. By this Bosworth was referring to the lack of war planning by this dictator, who told Hitler that he needed 17,000 trains carrying 170m tons to enable him to be able to wage war alongside his ally Germany. The key words are “as his propaganda declared” emphasising the unproven nature of this claim. There is no reference to any source that substantiates this propaganda claim, despite the extensive research by this noted author, who lists nearly 1500 bibliographical sources, a high proportion in the original Italian language.[10]

Farrell mentions that when Mussolini was summoned by the King to be become Prime Minister in 1922, he told the station master at Milan that “I want to leave on time. From now on, everything must work perfectly”. Farrell says “that this was the origin of the joke that, at least, under Fascism, the trains must run on time”. “Mussolini not only made the trains run on time, but made them faster”.  Nowhere in the book is there a reference to, nor source of, anything that would substantiate the claim that all trains were made to run on time.[11] 

George Seldes [12], states that the claim that “the trains always run on time, was parroted as an answer to all criticisms, including lack of editorial freedom or justice. The fascist regime made this claim to portray a country in which law and order prevailed. An investigation covering two weeks revealed several derailments leading to serious delays.

Seldes adds that:

it is true that the majority of big expresses run on time - those carrying eye-witness tourists - but on smaller lines, bad rail and roadbed conditions frequently caused delays. The Belgian Foreign Minister said we were always kept waiting at level crossings for more than a quarter of an hour, because the trains were never there at the times they should have been passing”. 

Pre-war Keesings Contemporary Archives has many entries relating to Mussolini, none of which mention the railways. There is only one pre-war reference to Italian railways “that all main line and secondary lines are to be electrified to reduce coal imports.” [13]

Two books on Fascism under Mussolini do not mention railways at all. [14]

It is pertinent to ask why there is an obsession to criticise British railways - whether nationalised or private sector - for failing to deliver a 100% reliable and safe service to the customer, when no other industry does so.

One BBC commentator [15] said that the Prime Minister should concentrate on getting trains to run on time. I phoned: “before worrying about getting trains on time to benefit 10% of the population, could the PM look into getting buses, planes and ships to be punctual, thus benefiting far more than rail passengers. He could also take action to compel UK industry, traders and commerce to fulfil their promises by the due date. Perhaps he could induce a sense of urgency and reliability into those delivering or collecting from houses, or calling to carry out repairs”. Needless to say, my comment was not broadcast!


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[1] Britain’s Railways - the Reality.

[2] D Mack Smith, Mussolini’s Roman Empire, 1976, page 196

[3] Benito Mussolini, My Autobiography, 1937, page 255

[4] Edward Gibbins, Square Deal Denied, 1998, chapter 2

[5] Marco Palla, Mussolini and Fascism, 2001

[6] Laura Fermi, Mussolini,1961, page 361

[7] Martin Blinkhorn, Mussolini and Fascist Italy, 1994 See page 28

[8] Jasper Ridley, Mussolini, 1997, page 210

[9] D Mack Smith Mussolini’s Roman Empire, 1976. The quotations are from pages 118, 243, 244 & 174 respectively.

[10] RJB Bosworth, Mussolini, 2002

[11] Nicholas Farrell: Mussolini - a new life, 2004, page 121

[12] George Seldes, Sawdust Caesar - the untold history of Mussolini & Fascism, 1936, pp 348-350

[13] 23-24 January, 1933

[14] Alan Cassells, Fascist Italy, 1977; Mark Robson, Italy: Liberalism & Fascism, 1992

[15] Radio 2, 16 July 2004