Why Do Rome Buses Keep Bursting Into Flames?

A bus caught fire in the center of Rome, bursting into flames and sending a thick column of black smoke up in the air on Tuesday.

The incident took place in via del Tritone—a central street usually crowded with tourists heading to the nearby Trevi Fountain—the Italian news agency Ansa reported, attributing the cause of the fire to a short circuit.

The driver told passengers to evacuate the bus as soon as he realized the engine caught fire, but one young woman reported light burns on her arm and face as she lowered the shutter of the neabry shop where she worked, several eyewitnesses told the newspaper La Repubblica. They also described seeing the bus catching fire, followed by a loud explosion that engulfed the vehicle in flames.

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The wreck of an autobus of Roman public transport company Atac, is seen Via del Tritone in central Rome, after being destroyed by an accidental fire on May 8, 2018. Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

The eternal city famously burnt for six days some 1,500 years ago in the Great Fire of Rome and, while the bus fires haven't been as devastating, they have been a long-standing issue affecting public transport in Italy's capital.

As many as 22 buses were destroyed or damaged by fire in 2017, according to the newspaper Corriere della Sera. The same publication calculated last year that one bus has to face repairs every four days due to suspicious anomalies. The incident in via Tritone on Tuesday was the ninth bus catching fire since the beginning of 2018, and the count went up to 10 a few hours later, when yet another bus was engulfed by flames in the city's outskirts.

All fingers point at local transport authority ATAC, which is struggling to replace an ageing fleet of buses while buckling under a mountain of debt. Images of the incident were shared on social media, with many commenting on how what looks like a terrorist attack is a fairly regular occurrence in the city. Italian director Francesca Archibugi, a Rome native, tweeted a picture of the vehicle's burnt skeleton and mocked the tone of news reports about terrorist incidents. "Attack in the heart of Rome claimed by ATAC," she wrote.

"Today could have been a massacre. In which other European capital do public buses explode? Which one?" wrote Michele Galvani, a journalist for Rome's local newspaper Il Messaggero.

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A firefighter walks next to a burned bus in downtown Rome, Italy May 8, 2018. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

The first bus that caught fire on Tuesday was from 2003, ATAC said in a statement, adding it was investigating the issue. "In the past few months we have intensified preventive action to minimize the risks of fire to the fleet which unfortunately has an advanced average age," the statement read. "The actions taken have allowed us to bring down the cases of fire on the vehicles by around 25 percent in the first quarter of 2018 compared to the same period in 2017," it added.

The local councilor for transport Linda Meleo told reporters the city of Rome would soon launch a public tender to fit the buses with fire protection systems, but flames aren't the only issue affecting the fleet: in rainy weather, raindrops leak from the roof, as as seen in a video posted in the Corriere on Tuesday.