Rats still make an occasional appearance on the tracks and riders still kvetch about litter on the cars, but New York City's subway has made an undeniable comeback.

The labyrinthine system drew 1.13 billion fares last year - the most since 1972. After years of physical deterioration, rising crime and declining ridership, cars are now cleaner, waits are shorter and fares, unbelievably, are coming down."I'm pretty impressed," said Ivan Mrakovcic of Queens as he rode the F train into Manhattan. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he recalled, the system "was just a graffiti-strewn mess. They used to refer to it as the electric sewer system."

It's still no Garden of Eden. Stations are impossibly hot on sweltering summer days, cars are a far cry from the tidy, carpeted ones in other major cities and the clanking roar of trains can make waiting commuters feel they've entered a post-industrial nightmare.

Most subway riders, though, seem to agree that trains in the past few years have vastly improved from the nadir during the city's fiscal crisis in the 1970s and '80s.

"It has gotten better, a lot better, especially over the past three years," said commuter Shirley Silver, a bookkeeper from Brooklyn.

Movies like 1974's "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" - which showed a gang of thugs hijacking a subway train - buttressed a belief west of the Hudson River that New York's subways were about as safe as a war zone.

Real-life violence didn't help. Vigilante Bernhard Goetz made headlines across the country when he shot four youths on a No. 2 train in 1984 because he thought they were going to rob him. In 1990, a young tourist from Utah, Brian Watkins, was knifed to death while trying to protect his mother from muggers.

Since then, police have cracked down on subway crime, and the state and city have spent billions of dollars improving trains and stations.

Today's subway cars go an average of 70,000 miles between breakdowns, compared with just 7,000 miles in 1981, said Gene Rus-sian-off of the Straphangers Campaign, a watchdog group for riders.

"They're 10 times more reliable," he said. "While it's not like riding a magic carpet, it's a whole lot better than it used to be."

Russianoff said a booming economy and the introduction of free transfers between buses and subways last year also helped boost ridership.

New York's 722-mile system passed the Paris Metro last year to become the fifth-busiest subway system in the world, behind Moscow, Tokyo, Mexico City and Seoul, South Korea.

Many riders temper their praise, emphasizing that the Golden Age hasn't arrived yet.

"There's still room for improvement," said David Osunkwo of Passaic Park, N.J., who rides the F train from his Manhattan office to night classes in Queens every day. "You get in some cars and still see old newspapers and trash."

And not everyone agrees things are better. John Zadabara, 72, a messenger who rides the trains for hours every day, said the subways are still dirtier and more dangerous than when he took them to Coney Island as a child.

"When I was a kid it was a lot better, 100 percent better," Za-da-ba-ra grumbled, pulling a woolen cap down over his head as he wait-ed for a train in the Rockefeller Center subway station. "They get it going good, and then they do something to disrupt it. I don't know why."

A recent fare deal that lowered the cost of some rides from $1.50 to $1.36 could mean more riders. But are the subways equipped to handle more riders?

"The really big challenge now is how to put more service out there to meet the ridership," Russianoff said. "If people come back and then they get crummy service, you're going to start to lose them again."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Subway comeback

New York City's subway ridership is on the rise and the fares, unbelievably, are coming down.*

Subway monthly ridership

1972 1.15 billion

1997 1.13 billion

Fare history

1904 $ .05

1953 .15

1972 .35

1980 .60

1986 1.00

1992 1.25

1995 1.50

*An 11-for-the-price-of-10 fare deal slashed the cost of some rides from $1.50 to $1.36.