dal "Times" - 16 luglio 2002
takes the Tube
by Michael Binyon
is crowded, built on steep hills and has a volcano, yet its new Metro system could teach
London's transport chiefs a lesson. Take a network of alleys in a decaying city centre,
steep, tenement-covered hills and winding, narrow streets and what do you have? Naples.
Combine that with the adventurous driving habits of Neapolitans, the enduring Italian
love-affair with the car and the habit of cruising around the port on warm summer nights,
and what is the result? Traffic gridlock into the early hours
of each morning. In few cities is a public transport alternative more difficult to provide.
The most radical scheme, a metro linking the outlying regions of this sprawling city, would seem impossible: the soil is friable volcanic ash and pumice, the inclines down to the sea are precipitous and there is the constant danger of earthquakes. And any tunnelling is bound to run into priceless archaeological remains that could delay construction for years. Yet Naples has recently opened a new stretch of underground in the heart of the Bourbon monarchs' former capital that must be the envy of every modern
city on the continent. Spacious, bright, safe, clean and stylish, the new line is proof that where there is political will and popular support, geology, money and corruption need not stand in the way of better transport. It is a lesson that the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, facing a court challenge over his congestion charge, and the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, should study closely if the Government is to have any hope of rescuing London's fetid and ramshackle Underground.
Naples began with one advantage: several old mainline tracks ran into and through the city centre, built in a distant steam age when no one needed planning permission to knock down houses. A new underground system could use this network as a basis, adding stops and linking lines with loops and tunnels. Unlike the Tube, Naples could run full-size trains in tunnels far wider than the stuffy bore-holes under London's streets. But the planners were more ambitious. They wanted to use the new Metro as a catalyst for comprehensive regeneration of the dilapidated city centre and
bring travellers face to face with their rich historical heritage. Artistic treasures would be on display in every station. The Metro would be not only a route to modernity but a showcase of a classical past. Both aims have been strikingly realised with the opening of the latest stretch down to the old Piazza Dante. The station at Salvator Rosa was in the heart of a rundown area: congested, crumbling high-rise blocks, clustered higgledy-piggledy up the hillside with no open spaces, nowhere for children to play. The planners decided to make this a showcase for modernity. The buildings were refurbished, the clutter cleared and the station of golden stone and elongated arched windows erected above ground
like a secular church, its spire a beacon to the neighbourhood.All around there are huge works of open-air modern art: golden metal sheets wave beneath the windows of the flats like futuristic washing and curved brick walls support gardens of sculpture. A long, enclosed escalator, balanced like a free-standing tube against the hill, forms an aesthetic link from the station to the dwelling places.
"Of course, we asked everyone first what they wanted," said the Metro's chief engineer, Ennio Cascetta, now Transport Secretary for the entire Campania region. "We had intensive consultations with all the residents, and showed them the plans. They liked the ideas. They invited the artists in and saw what we were trying to do." It is a poor, working-class neighbourhood, but no longer is it run down. And Naples has learnt what city planners everywhere find: if you give people something valuable, they will look after it. The area still has a bright, artificial newness to it. And so far it remains free of graffiti, litter, ice-cream vendors and the usual detritus of the inner city.Building a metro on a steep hill was far from easy. Three flights of escalators take passengers deep below ground. Even then, the tunnel has to slope precipitately down to the next station - the incline is the steepest in the world. Indeed, the line has to make an underground loop across itself in order to lessen the gradient as it descends. The stations are bright, air-conditioned and high-tech: over every entrance to the platform a
perforated tube will rain down a curtain of water to protect the escape routes from smoke and heat should fire break out. The yellow trains themselves are sleek, shiny and wide.
At Piazza Dante, the heart of the ancient quarter built in the centuries when Spain ruled southern Italy, the coming of the Metro was used to clear away scruffy gardens, pave the piazza with carved granite, erect a statue to Italy's greatest poet and fill the underground station with modern art.
All this cost a fortune - some euro 3.88 billion (£2.5 billion). Much of the money has come from European regional funds, the rest from Rome, the city of Naples and the Campania region, which has made the new Metro the heart of a regional railway infrustructure. By 2011 the Naples Metro will have 100 stations on 90km of track - all for a city of well under two million people. The wider regional system covers 1,200km with 340 stations; when completed
in 2010 it will have 1,400km of track, 423 stations, 28 parking areas and 21 train-bus transfer points.This puts London's plans for integrated transport in the shade. But will it get Neapolitans out of their cars? At present the Metro carries 480,000 passengers a day; by 2011 they will number 720,000. By comparison with London's three million a day on the Underground, this does not look like
intensive use. But the city planners are every bit as determined as Ken Livingstone to crack down on the car. Parking fees will rise rapidly.
Streets are to be pedestrianised. The police will be far less indulgent of the bumper-to-bumper rows of illegally parked cars now restricting the roads to barely the width of a bus. The authorities hope that public transport will rise from 34 to 40 per cent of all journeys, cutting road deaths by around 19 fatalities and 2,000 injuries a year.
What has galvanised Naples into action? The city hardly has a history of vigorous government. Indeed, it is notorious for its Mafia clans, corruption and balmy lethargy. But this image is out of date. The turning point for Naples was 1994, the year of the G7 summit. For the first time, local people say, the money earmarked by Rome to clean up and smarten the venue for the world leaders did not simply disappear. It was properly spent. Streets were cleaned, buildings repainted, water, phones and electricity lines repaired.
Neapolitans noticed the difference and were amazed. Could it be that cleaner government had at last appeared?
Amazement turned to pride, and pride to determination. The old south could prove to the rest of Italy that it was not simply a museum of the classical past. Something could be done to revive the economy. Something, especially, could be done about the worst of the problems - transport bottlenecks.The problems are not yet solved. Unemployment is still running at around 40
per cent. The black economy is still the norm. But transport, at least, is not the nightmare it was. For Naples this could be a matter of life and death. One day Vesuvius, that brooding volcano always on the skyline, is going to erupt again. Emergency exit routes have been mapped out, but at present they are too clogged to make much difference. Getting traffic flowing is the key to prosperity today; it could be the key to survival in the future.