ROME — Running late for a news conference on Tuesday morning, I decided not to wait for the No. 63 bus that I usually take to work in the center of Rome and called a cab instead. As the taxi driver told me that he couldn’t wait to retire because of all the traffic and potholes, and as we approached the area around Parliament, a tremendous boom shook the street. The driver slammed on the brakes and I ducked behind the seat.
“Is that an attack?” he asked nervously as we watched a plume of black smoke rise a couple hundred yards in front of us.
No, it was not an attack, to be blamed on saboteurs, terrorists or anarchists, but ATAC, the city’s own transportation service, which has a record of buses short-circuiting and bursting into flames on the city’s streets. Romans, long used to waiting for buses that never come, have now gotten used to ones that burst into flames.
ATAC does not give estimates of the number of its vehicles that have caught fire, probably with good reason. The news media reported more than 20 cases of buses catching fire in Rome last year. Later on Tuesday, a probable technical failure caused a second bus to catch fire on the outskirts of Rome. That brought this year’s total to 10, according to press estimates. And it is only May.
No deaths or serious injuries have been reported from the bus fires so far this year. One shopkeeper, who was in her shop in front of the burning bus I witnessed, was lightly injured. “Breaking News: ATAC claims responsibility for the attack in Rome,” read a meme that spread around the internet, showing the bus engulfed in flames.
“Rome Burns,” read a headline on the front page of the city’s paper, Il Messaggero. The Italian web filled with images of the city’s embattled mayor, Virginia Raggi of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, fiddling like Nero on a harp as the city, or its buses, burned.
Another paper, Il Foglio, noted that while tourists had panicked about terrorism, Romans had reassured them. The headline was “ATAC Akbar!”
“Rome is the only capital in the world where you see a bus in flames in the city center,” the paper’s editorial read, “a ten-meter high smoke chain, people running away, explosion, police and firefighters’ sirens, and nobody thinks of ISIS, but ATAC.”
It was no accident that my first inquiry after the explosion was to ATAC, rather than the police.
“ATAC immediately opened an internal investigation to ascertain the cause of the fire that developed on board,” a company statement said, repeating much of the conversation I had with a spokesman.
“The fire didn’t cause any consequences to the passengers,” it added. “The vehicle was completely destroyed.”
The city offered no explanation, and officials could not be reached for comment.
The cause, however, is self-evident: The buses are too old and almost certainly too little serviced. The two buses that burst into flames on Tuesday were built in 2003 and in 2004. On average, public buses should be in service for six to seven years, not 15, transportation experts say.
“Old buses simply break more easily and even finding components to replace becomes a challenge,” said Gabriele Grea, a professor of economics and management of local public transportation at Bocconi University in Milan. “These kinds of fires are rare, but generally depend on the poor maintenance of antiquated vehicles.”
After years of little funds and scarce attention, the center-left national government launched in 2017 an ambitious plan to renovate the public transportation fleet across the country. Yet the process takes time and Rome finds itself in an especially awkward position.
ATAC, the company for bus and rail transport in the city of Rome, has a national reputation for passengers who fail to buy tickets — and jump off as soon as ticket collectors, who are rarely spotted, come on board. Drivers, many of whom have little problem multitasking on their cellphones, are not asked to check tickets. The company’s employee absence rate is well beyond the national average.
The buses are often packed. Functioning air conditioning in the summer is rare. Older ladies throw elbows to empty seats. Pregnant women often have to stand. But bumping against the city’s potholes can make everyone nauseated, and it’s noisy, too. Even the most stubbornly chatty Italian has a hard time speaking on the cellphone on an ATAC bus. And then there is the groping, and the pickpockets …
But fire is an entirely different level of discomfort.
The company was still trying to determine the cause of the accident, but local news reports said that the driver saw some smoke coming out of the engine and evacuated all passengers just in time.
Hailed as a hero, he told a local paper that he had just done his job. And there the explanations stopped, both from ATAC and from the city of Rome, which controls it.
Since her early days in government, Ms. Raggi, the mayor, and her cabinet have been working to avoid bankruptcy for ATAC, a move that has long been stalled, and have prevented its sale to private investors. The company’s debt surpasses 1 billion euros (about $1.2 billion).
“Rome is a dire and particularly visible case as it is the capital,” Mr. Grea said. “There is no immediate solution, unfortunately, but they need to urgently address the ravaging debt and to provide a full service.”
He added that ATAC had canceled 20 percent of its bus routes in the second half of 2017. The company’s social media managers scrupulously report the daily disruption of buses in a sad bulletin.
At the end of the day, I considered my commuting options. I’d already given up on my bike because of the potholes and the lack of bike lanes that make your ride a perilous zigzag through traffic. The 63 was running on a diverted route back toward my apartment and I could still catch the next bus if I hurried.
Instead, I decided to play it safe, opened an app for a car-sharing service, and reserved a car.