Britain, buffeted by inflation and squeezed by shrinking overseas markets, is going underground -- and doing very well at it. As part of its nonacentennial celebration of the building of the "New Castle" by William the Conquerer in 1080, Newcastle is opening its new $:280 million ($ 660 million) Metro system Aug. 7. It is the climax of a decade-long venture to adapt the best of light-rail technology -- the familiar street tramways of Europe -- to underground service. When completed it will represent Britain's largest investment in new public transport by central and local government in this century.
The 34-mile line, jointly funded by the Tyne and Wear County Council and the central government, is very much a hybrid. "There is an inevitable tendency to build in conformity with what exists," says Desmond Fletcher, director-general of the country's Passenger Transport Executive.
So the Metro uses 26 miles of old British Rail track and adds eight miles of tunnels, viaducts, and new lines. Each of the tramlike electric cars, articulated to bend in the middle, seats 84 passengers. They are joined into short two-car trains that stop at half-mile intervals.
For Newcastle, the litmus test is whether the population of three-quarters of a million uses it. "Like a new roller coaster," says Mr. Fletcher, "people will come and have a ride on it."