When in Rome - miss the bus

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The Independent Online
TAKING a bus in Rome is a daunting experience. In a city where few public services work particularly well, public transport is considered little short of a disaster. The big orange vehicles are invariably packed to choking point, the drivers are notoriously short-tempered, timetables and maps are non- existent, and the traffic is so bad that it is often quicker to walk.

Traditionally there has always been one compensation: nobody ever worried greatly about buying tickets. Inspections were rare and fines insignificant. For years, tens of thousands of people simply travelled for free.

No longer, or at least not if the bus company's new president Cesare Vaciago has anything to do with it. As part of a massive overhaul of the whole system, Mr Vaciago has whacked up fines to 100,000 lire (pounds 39) per offence and hired a special task force of 300 ticket inspectors, offering them a bounty for every fare-dodger they catch.

"We lose L40bn lire a year through fare-dodging. Ideally I'd like to bring criminal charges against anyone caught twice without a ticket," Mr Vaciago said.

Not that Rome is in any danger of turning into a Zurich-like model of efficiency and honesty. The crackdown on fare-dodging was supposed to start in March, but did not get under way until April and did not reach top gear until May. Even now, most Romans have yet to encounter an inspector since they have 800 lines and more than 1250 miles of routes to cover.

Like many other Italian institutions, the Rome bus service is bloated and broke as a result of years of mismanagement and corruption. Fare-dodging is only one of a myriad of problems contributing to a L400bn annual deficit. Mr Vaciago has vowed to cut costs by 25 per cent and increase prices by the same amount - hardly a recipe to make him popular either with staff or travellers.

His main psychological weapon is self-deprecation. He has put out a free consumer magazine explaining the reforms and inviting readers to contribute complaints and observations. "By all means speak badly of us, but speak directly to us," urged the first issue - which, true to form, appeared nearly a month late.

"Every day I see the same things," wrote one commuter, "bodies crushed against each other, men and women forced into anonymous physical contact, hysterical scenes, suffocation, curses against total strangers."

Another wrote that on one rainy day the windscreen wipers failed and passengers were asked to go outside with their newspapers to clear the driver's view.

Mr Vaciago responds to all the letters personally, pleading: "Please forgive us for what has happened to you, and trust us to make things better in the future." But he says it will take two years for structural changes to make a tangible impact. In the meantime passengers will have to accept continuing poor service while paying nearly 70 per cent more for their monthly passes than they did a year ago.

Mr Vaciago hopes to create 11 high-priority bus routes protected by "smart" traffic-lights and road spikes by the end of the century. But the buses will still have to compete with two million cars. "If we create more bus lanes, the cars get more clogged. If we liberate room for the cars, the buses can't move," he said. "It's a lose-lose game."