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Finally, Warsaw will get a subway

Published Oct. 3, 2005

After 70 years of planning, the Great Depression, world war, Nazi occupation, Soviet domination, martial law, the rise and fall of communism and countless construction delays, the Polish capital is about to get its first subway.

Well, about half of one, anyway. The rest has yet to be built.

"You need 10 or 12 years without wars or economic crises to build a subway," Warsaw Metroprojekt general director Bohdan Zun said. "I think the last time such a situation occurred in Poland was in the 16th century."

The ceremonial ribbon will be cut today by Jan Podoski, a retired transportation engineer who at 91 holds the distinction of having been around Warsaw longer than plans for the hapless Metro. Cardinal Jozef Glemp, who is considerably younger, will follow with holy water.

The only time Poles stumbled this close to getting a subway was in 1957, when digging on the city's East Bank was called off after six years because money ran out.

Communist authorities were so humiliated by the fiasco that it was illegal to even talk about the project for more than a decade. The uncompleted tunnel became the East Bloc's most top-secret wine cellar.

Assuming the guest of honor stays healthy enough (Podoski was hospitalized last week with shingles) and authorities remain resolute enough (the opening has been on and off again for months), this obsessively self-conscious city will finally purge itself of one of its most glaring shortcomings sometime after noon today.

"It is a relief," said Daniela Kondasz, a lifelong Warsaw resident who plans to treat her 7-year-old grandson to an opening-day ride. "All civilized countries in the world have a subway, but poor Poland does not. Finally, that will change."

Generally speaking, of course.

The Warsaw Metro grand opening comes with a host of disclaimers and on the heels of a string of embarrassing gaffes.

The underground railway was declared ready in September, but it has taken nearly seven months to work out kinks and get everyone involved _ from emergency rescue crews to garbage haulers _ to grant approvals.

When an electrical short circuit filled a tunnel with black smoke last month, firefighters discovered that sufficient ventilation had not been installed and that they lacked essential communications equipment for subterranean firefighting.

Police substations at the 11 Metro stops had to be retrofitted at the last minute with new sliding jail doors because female police officers did not have the strength to maneuver the original ones. The locks were changed too when experts determined they were designed to foil Communist-era petty thieves, not the sophisticated terrorists and mobsters of the Free World.

Authorities also realized that protective roofs were not built over entrance stairways even though inclement weather is so common here that children suffer Vitamin D deficiency because of a lack of sunshine. It was too late to erect roofs before the opening. Besides, many of the stairways are impassable because there was no money to complete them. Officials are looking to Glemp to ensure clear skies.

"The subway has become a perfect metaphor for how everything works in this country," said Torben von Staden, managing director of Retail Properties International, commercial consultants in Warsaw. "There are a lot of problems, but it works somehow."

Less than half of the 14.5-mile underground railway will actually be open for traffic. It has been 12 years since out-of-work coal and copper miners were first dragged to Warsaw to tunnel Europe's newest underground, but no one knows when they will finish.

Work is four years behind schedule and is lagging further. Costs are double what was budgeted _ the first stretch cost $600-million _ and are growing. This year, the city of 1.7-million has allocated half of its capital budget to the subway, but officials predict it could be five or 10 years before the entire system is running.

Unfortunately, the completed Metro stretch goes from virtually nowhere to nowhere, making it more of an oddity than an essential transit link.

It starts in a weedy field within sight of an ugly suburb of concrete high-rises and houses packed together like sardines. It ends 6.8 miles later at a freeway overpass two stations short of downtown. There wasn't enough money to go the extra mile.

"The line is so short that people commuting to work are going to need to change to buses," said Tomasz Miecik, whose giveaway newspaper in the sprawling suburb of Ursynow has become the unofficial community bulletin board on Metro problems. "Many people think it will be more convenient to just take the bus the whole way."

Miecik said the middle-class suburb is excited to get the subway, but not excited enough to give up its buses.

Strapped for cash, city officials said in January that they would slash bus routes to Ursynow when the subway opened. They soon gave in to protests, and now say a decision will come after three months of Metro operation.

"The most important thing for us is that the digging has stopped," said Miecik, a 20-year resident of Ursynow. "It was perpetual for 10 years. You had to make detours everywhere. And they kept running out of money. When you look at the stations, you can see which ones were built when they had money. They have nice marble columns."