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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

"A Jewel of Italian Technology" pre- and post-WWII: Stazione Termini's Cabina ACE

How does one get a great photo like this - of one of the towers in the Termini train yards?  From the stairway up a contiguous building which, it turns out, is the "Roma Termini - Cabina ACE" - or the building housing a railway control system dating from 1939 and in operation for 60 years.

Anyone who has taken a train in or out of Stazione Termini (which has to be almost anyone who has been to Rome) has seen this building as the train pulls out or in. We had the rare opportunity to go inside it as part of 2018's Open House Roma, the first time it had been open to the public; OHR called it "a jewel of Italian technology of the era." ACE stands for "Apparato Centrale Electrico" - Central Electric Apparatus. And, we learned, one objective of this center was to provide a back-up method of switching the railroad tracks in case of a bombing or other failure of the train switching systems..
The great hall where the 700+ levers still exist.

Close-up of the manual levers.
That failure originally was foreseen by the Mussolini regime as a possible result of Allied bombing in World War II. The original project, begun in 1939, was the child of engineer and architect Angiolo Mazzoni, who designed most of Stazione Termini (although the station's front was substantially modified post-war). The work on the station, and this particular building, was interrupted in 1943 "because of the war."

The project was taken up again and completed in 1948. As the state railroad foundation (Fondazione FS Italiane) proudly stated in a news release just after our visit: this was "the control tower that regulated the railway traffic at Roma Termini. Over 40 meters long, large luminous screens, 730 levers and a breathtaking view of the station: an electro-mechanical masterpiece created in the '30s and in operation for over 60 years."

View towards Termini from Cabina ACE.
The central room we saw (photo above) has fantastic views of the tracks and their environs.

A duplicate set of machinery was set up below ground - another of Mussolini's bunkers.

The duplicate system in the "bunker."
Again, quoting from the Fondazione FS: "To manage the movement of trains, teams of more than 60 railway workers climbed every day about 20 meters high, in the tower, each positioned in front of their own 'levers' and awaiting the orders of the 'station chief' who like an orchestra director directed them to prepare the correct track layout."

And, the news release continues: "But when the sirens sounded, announcing an imminent airstrike, the whole team ran down into the bunker, ten meters deep--the "antigas" doors were hermetically sealed behind their backs-- and remained there until the danger ceased. There was no time for fear, we had to resist because our only goal was: to guarantee the movement of trains."

This board, when in use, would have the train lines lit, showing where each
train was, including (we think) trains going to and from other cities, such as Florence.

Former railway employees were among the guides
during our visit.
With respect to Mazzoni as an architect, Wikipedia (English) has a short but pithy bio of him that explains his work for the Fascist government (he was a card-carrying Fascist) and the later rehabilitation of his reputation as an architect.

And if you really want to get into the weeds, the Fondazione has Mazzoni's drawings for the building ("Fabbricato I") online - as well as hundreds of other archival materials.

More photos below. Dianne

Our OHR guide - the Cabina is the building back right.
This photo faces away from the station.
Inside the bunker, which was designed to be hermetically sealed,
and have its own air supply.

Nice views from our walk up to the Cabina of the
lovely 17th -century, Bernini-enhanced (portico,
facade, statue of the saint) church of Santa Bibiana,
totally hemmed-in by the 20th century train station
buildings and about which we've written.

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