Commuters today got their first ride on New Delhi's new metro rail system, which officials hailed as a dream come true that would usher this traffic-clogged, polluted capital into the ranks of swank Asian cities like Tokyo, Singapore and Taipei.

Hundreds of thousands of commuters braved the winter chill, some lining up at dawn, to ride the subway, India's largest urban transport project. Of the 155 miles envisioned for the completed system, just five are in place so far -- a segment that took four years and 15,000 workers to build. By 2005, 38 miles are projected to be operational, officials said, and the entire network is scheduled to be completed by 2021.

The Delhi metro is India's second, after the 10-mile system in the eastern city of Calcutta. It provides a modern alternative for the desperate commuters in this teeming city of 13 million people, who have long had to rely on overcrowded buses, taxis charging exorbitant fares and three-wheeled automobile rickshaws. Built with the help of consultants from Japan, South Korea and United States, at a cost of $2 billion for the first 38 miles, the state-of-the-art system will be better than those of New York and Tokyo, officials said.

"The people of Delhi have been dreaming of a metro for ages, and that has been realized today," Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said Tuesday, when he became the first passenger on the South Korean-made metro cars.

But the dream project had a bumpy start today, as the new system was overwhelmed by as many as 800,000 excited commuters, four times its capacity. Automatic gates broke down, the computerized fare collection system collapsed and managers ran out of tokens. City police had to resort to tough crowd control measures to manage the jostling crowds.

"It's a new system, and the massive overcrowding led to some hitches," said Anuj Dayal, a spokesman for Delhi Metro Rail Corp. "But it proved to everybody how badly the city has been yearning for the metro."

But those who did get to ride the gleaming cars, decorated with balloons and ribbons, could not stop gushing.

"For a few minutes, I felt I was not in India anymore. It was world-class," Ashok Chatterji, a 49-year-old bank clerk, said as he came out of the train with his family. "It was air-conditioned, automatic, and clean. It is a national pride."

"The city buses are a nightmare for women, with so much groping and pinching all the time. Metro will be a relief from all that," said Subhadra Chatterji, his wife, who said she wore her bright blue silk sari and gold jewelry specially for her first ride.

New Delhi's roads are among the busiest in India, packed with 4 million vehicles. A fleet of slow, poorly maintained public buses makes up less than 1 percent of that number but handles nearly 50 percent of residents' transportation needs. For many, the choice was to be jammed into the buses like pickles in a jar or be fleeced by the auto-rickshaws and taxis. More and more have turned to personal cars and motorcycles, choking the streets further.

About 70 percent of the city's air pollution is caused by vehicles, particularly the buses. Government and court orders requiring public transportation companies to switch to such eco-friendly fuels as compressed natural gas have been defied by transport unions and have often met with stiff resistance that has turned violent. Officials hope that the metro will reduce the city's pollution by half, handling the load of nearly 2,600 buses or 33 lanes of private cars.

But some urban transportation analysts say that New Delhi's growth pattern was different from the growth patterns of Western cities and that metro may not be the best solution.

New Delhi "is a city that has many centers, and it is built on a humane, low-rise scale. And 50 percent of the trips are less than five kilometers [three miles]," said Dinesh Mohan, a professor who heads the urban transportation department at the Indian Institute of Technology. "What the city needs is a better, more modern, high-tech bus system. It would be far cheaper for a low-income country like ours."

The breathless countdown to the slick new city railway began months ago, as officials held out the metro as a panacea for all the city's woes. As crime against women increased, people were told that women would not be harassed on the metro, because trains and stations would be heavily guarded. New Delhi's customary summer power outages, officials said, would not affect either the metro's operations or its air conditioners. And in a city where most buildings and transportation are inaccessible to the physically disabled, the metro would be "disabled-friendly."

Advertising campaigns ran for weeks to "educate" the city on how to use the metro. For Dayal, the system spokesman, it was almost like asking for a "change of culture."

"People in New Delhi are rough, so I ran daily radio ads saying no pinching and elbowing in the metro," Dayal said. "No rooftop traveling allowed; you could get electrocuted. No drunkenness, no abusive language, no milk cans and pets allowed. No tampering with the switches and gadgets, and most importantly, no ticketless travel will be tolerated."

He added: "I know I can't change people's ways. But I am telling them to behave better, at least while inside the metro."

The faces of passengers at the Kashmere Gate metro station in New Delhi are reflected on the windows of a train on its first day of public operation.