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Romans hurtle along tram-lines towards a chaotic millenium

Andrew Gumbel finds the Eternal City on a one-way road to ruin with a hi-tech transport system that failed to deliver
IT WAS supposed to be Rome's dream machine for the Millennium. Not so much a tram as a flying carpet, a high-speed, hi-tech, electronic monster that would whisk 300,000 people painlessly from their commuter suburbs to the centre.

Nothing could go wrong, they said, since the tram would have its own dedicated track and pass every two to three minutes. So confident were the city fathers that they cancelled half a dozen buses that used to ply the same route, declaring them excess to requirement. Even the traffic lights would turn green on command, thanks to some smart computer technology.

The town planners who cooked up this scheme forgot one thing. This is Rome, a city where nothing can be taken for granted except chronic urban dysfunction. Three days into its existence, the No 8 tram from Casalotto in the western suburbs to Largo Argentina in the heart of the old city has suffered four serious breakdowns, fallen way behind its ambitious schedule, mashed pensioners, babies and invalids into an indistinguishable human pulp and provoked the beginnings of a popular revolution.

"Off with their heads!" yelled a middle-aged woman amidst the mayhem on inauguration day, directing her anger at the mayor, the head of the bus company - anybody she could think of to blame. "Don't treat us like cattle, resign!" echoed half a tramload on Tuesday, their mouths wriggling about for air above the crush like shipwreck survivors fighting to stay afloat.

It did not help that traffic around Largo Argentina has been completely redirected to allow passengers alighting from the tram to make onward connections. The square has turned into a seething mass of angry commuters, jammed cars and buses unable to negotiate the ludicrously tight bend into which they have all been stuffed.

This disaster has been a long time a-coming. The tramline was supposed to have been finished for last November's mayoral elections, but got held up when the Culture Ministry insisted at the last minute that the route be surfaced with cobblestones instead of plain asphalt.

It was too late to use real cobblestones, since the tracks had already been cemented in. An exasperated Rome city council was forced to order fake cobblestone tops no more than a couple of inches thick and, when it turned out the job could not be done locally, it had to subcontract the job out to Hong Kong.

A new inauguration date was fixed for last Saturday, but the mayor, Francesco Rutelli, found himself toasting an empty track since the line was still incomplete.

When the service finally started at 6am on Monday, there were no jumbo super-trams ready (the bus company had to use old rickety ones instead) and no "smart" traffic lights, just the usual dumb ones that obstinately turned red instead of green when the tram approached.

The ticket machine at Casalotto refused to give any change, forcing honest passengers to roam the district in search of an open bar. Pedestrians paid no attention to the tram whatever, forcing drivers to slam on the brakes and send heads crashing against the window-panes.

As a result, the journey time for the full stretch almost doubled from the projected 20 minutes to nearer 40. Time and again, the trams got so full the doors could not open and one of them gave up the ghost near the education ministry in Trastevere. "Hey Mr Mayor, give us back our buses!" they shouted as the mechanics vainly played with the emergency switches to try to kick the tram back to life. Actually, the passengers' wish has been granted. A desperate city council has put four buses on standby on their old route down Viale Trastevere in case of delays while the bus company struggles to prise open the doors of the No 8.

None of this bodes well for the year 2000, when up to 30 million pilgrims will flood into town for the Vatican's millennial Jubilee. Apart from the supertram, Rome has no significant infrastructural improvements to offer. A plan to build a new metro line beneath the centre fell through, as did a tunnel that would have burrowed under the Castel Sant'Angelo. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, it's going to be a bumpy ride.