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Minister at a bus stop | Joe Mizzi

If you meet Transport Minister Joe Mizzi at a bus stop, don’t be surprised – he is dedicating part of his time checking whether buses are on time and getting feedback from commuters. The down-to-earth minister surely gives the impression that he means business… but will he deliver?

james
James Debono
12 August 2013, 12:00am
Transport Minister Joe Mizzi (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)
Transport Minister Joe Mizzi (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)


Transport and Infrastructure Minister Joe Mizzi promises to leave no stone unturned in making the public transport system work. He speaks about how the high expectations raised by the previous government were disappointed, but he is optimistic that the new government will restore confidence in the sector by addressing its fundamental problem: the shortage of buses on our roads. Neither does he exclude increasing subsidies to Arriva - which are based on the total number of kilometres covered by the network - but he excludes any price hikes in fares.

I meet the affable Mizzi in his Floriana office just a few days after he has announced that he plans to take 'surprise' bus rides across the island, so as to get a more direct feel for the challenges faced by regular bus users.

He immediately clarifies that so far, his visits have been limited to bus stops and that he has yet to actually board any of the buses.

But would it not make more sense to send Transport Malta officials to conduct these spot checks?

Mizzi makes it clear that the competent bodies regularly make spot checks. However, he still insists on maintaining a direct channel of communication with the people.

"When one sends people, one does not get the whole picture... even the employees who are the closest to you tend to water things down for a minister and refrain from telling it as it is. The best feedback is from people who do not even recognise you and who speak from everyday experience."

Mizzi promises that he will never enclose himself in his office, as he does not want to detach himself from the electorate.

As soon as he was elected, Mizzi commenced a public consultation process, giving local councils and citizens the opportunity to voice their concerns and proposals.

"As soon as I became responsible I wanted to have a clear picture. I wanted to know exactly what was lacking in the service, and the best way to learn that was through the feedback given by the public."

This information was analysed and, on the basis of this feedback, work commenced on revising the routes.

The problem was that, although some routes were revised, the service did not improve and in some cases even deteriorated.

"It transpired that the problem is that some trips were being missed. People still complain that buses either fail to materialise or are already full when they arrive, but I cannot rely on mere hearsay."

To prove that this was the case, he insists that he needed data to substantiate these claims. But he will not simply rely on inspection by Transport Malta officials who are already doing this job. This is why he is spending time at bus stops.

"I want to be a hundred percent certain in my dealings with Arriva. I want to be in a position to tell them, categorically, 'You are incorrect', when they deny these claims.  When I used to highlight, they would go into denial mode. Now, this is changing."

With this in mind, some days ago, the minister informed the company that he would be holding his first inspection in Marsaskala.

"On that day, the service in Marsaskala was excellent. But I expected this to happen... therefore, I chose to go everywhere but Marascala."

This only proved his suspicions.

"While the situation improved in Marsascala since they thought I was going there, in other places it worsened... I suspect that they increased buses on the Marsascala route and decreased buses elsewhere. I do not want to play these games. We either solve the problem or we don't."

Mizzi did not want to publicise these spot checks but had no choice except to talk about it, as people began to take note of his presence.

"I wanted to keep a low profile... I only made this public because I was asked about my presence at bus stops. People were asking what I was doing at 5.30am at bus stops."

How did the commuters react to the presence of the transport minister at bus stops?

He admits that some commuters - particularly those belonging to the district in which he contests - recognised him.

"Judging by the look on their face, I could see that they were surprised, as they do not expect to meet the minister at the bus stop."

But the minister went unrecognised in other localities, and it was on these occasions that he received the most honest feedback about the service. He also insists that his only criterion in choosing the locations he visits is the number of complaints received.

"I visit those bus stops in localities from where the government is receiving most complaints."

Mizzi has now confronted Arriva with his own personal experiences, insisting that they have to increase the number of buses in their fleet.

"It is only now that they are accepting the need to increase the size of the fleet. This is the first step, as they were previously dismissive of this shortage."

Therefore, the government has conducted its own analysis on the number of buses required for the new routes and has handed this data to Arriva for its own analysis. On its part, Arriva is saying that it will need some time to bring over new buses. The government understands this and is giving the operators time to adapt.

But if Arriva is already in breach of its contractual obligations (by missing trips and not providing an adequate service), why not impose fines each time a bus misses a trip?

Mizzi confirms that Arriva is liable to receive fines for these breaches in contractual obligations, but this could be counterproductive.

"My main aim is to improve the service. If I impose fines, I would be simply acknowledging that the service is not good and that I have failed. My argument with Arriva is that it is in their interest to avoid fines and that in this case, we either succeed or we fail together. The positive thing is that they are recognising this."

Since the government wants Arriva to increase the number of buses, will this entail an increase in subsidies to the company?

Mizzi does not exclude this.

 "There will obviously be expenses related to the increase in both the number of buses and the kilometres covered by the buses because of the route revision."

But will this result in an increase in subsidies?

"This is not about subsidies. We are aware that these expenses are not covered by the present agreement. What's needed now is a real discussion about all of this."

But he insists that Arriva also stands to gain from these changes.

"They have to recognise that the current agreement is not functioning... we have to engage in real discussions in order to solve these problems together. If the service improves, they will make more profit. So it also makes sense for them to invest in the service. Presently, they are not faring well. This is a win-win situation for all stakeholders involved."

One positive thing is that Arriva will be appointing a Maltese person as their manager.

"This is a great step forward."

Mizzi insists that a good public transport service relies on steady cooperation between those providing the service, the drivers and the public at large.

"We will fail if any of these components is not on put on board."

He also reveals that over the past few weeks, ministry officials and persons from Arriva have been working in the ministry office in Floriana on devising the new routes.

While not excluding a revision of subsidies to the company, Mizzi rules out any hike in fares.

The European Commission is arguing that the current tariff system - through which tourists from other EU countries have to pay more than Maltese residents - is discriminatory. Wouldn't the removal of this tariff cut in to the operator's profits, making an increase in fares inevitable?

Without revealing much, Mizzi insists that this problem could be solved without increasing tariffs.

The next step for Mizzi is to address complaints related to the way commuters are treated by drivers (and vice versa), as well as complaints about the state of the buses.

Once again Mizzi wants direct feedback from commuters.

 "I will therefore soon be boarding buses to check myself how commuters and drivers are being treated. I want to understand these realities. Although we have the statistics, I need a personal perspective."

The minister admits that it has been a long time since he has boarded a bus.

"But my wife is a daily commuter. I receive complaints directly from my wife. But she only does this when she has a very serious complaint, and she does not want to take advantage of her position as the minister's wife."

The transport reform carried out be Austin Gatt was also based on reports and studies which cost the country around €850,000. Unsurprisingly, Mizzi is scathing in his criticism of any shortcomings that resulted in the wake of this costly reform. While insisting that he agrees that a reform was needed, he derides these consultancies as an  "irresponsible waste of money".

"One cannot conduct a transport reform on a computer screen. What one needs are concrete facts, like the number of buses required at particular times. One has to collect statistics."

Moreover, he believes that the previous government devised the routes with one sole - and pragmatic - aim: that of ensuring a profit for the operators. Unfortunately, in practice this resulted in a system that was ultimately counterproductive for the operators themselves.

What are the government's plans with regards to the much-maligned bendy buses, which despite their notoriety serve to relieve commuters from long waits in the busiest spots?

Mizzi is quite rational in his approach to this problem.

He admits that in some routes bendy buses are essential to provide a good service. But he also believes that these can be reduced, especially during certain times of the day, when they are not necessary.

"Our aim is to reduce the number of bendy buses along routes where these create congestion, but we will not eliminate them."

The agreement signed by the previous government and Arriva stipulates that all buses must have low emission Euro 5 engines. Yet two years down the line, certain buses on our roads fail to meet this standard.

 "They are committed to ensure that all buses on the road will conform to these standards. They also recognise this."

I quiz Mizzi on government's plans to decrease traffic congestion. But instead of proposing a way to reduce the number of cars on the roads, Mizzi thinks that traffic management and building more car parks is the way forward. He also speaks about the need to have proper and enforceable management plans during road works.

But isn't Malta's problem precisely that it has too many cars on the road?

"That is why we need a functional and attractive public transport system."

This leads us to the chicken-egg question, as a public transport system cannot be expected to deliver if the roads are congested with private cars.

Mizzi makes it clear that he is considering all possible public transport alternatives. Positively enough, one of the government's priorities is to encourage maritime connections.

For this, one needs a good infrastructure, and according to Mizzi, the long overdue Barakka lift has contributed to this solution.

With regards to parking, the government is embarking on a comprehensive plan for the whole island, which would be open to private investment. He has also asked local councils to submit their plans in this regard.

Yet one of the first actions taken by the government was to revoke a resident parking scheme in Sliema which allowed non-residents to park their cars for two hours between 8am and 9am in certain residential zones in Sliema while leaving unrestricted parking in the remaining hours.

Mizzi insists that the residential parking scheme was based on studies and consultations conducted six years ago, pointing out that the council had intended to introduce the scheme in 2009 but only proceeded to implement it four years later.  He points out that the scheme was suspended after teachers threatened to go on strike.

"This showed that circumstances had changed from the time when the council held its consultations. Those who had initially agreed with the council on the scheme now no longer do."

He also insists that he is still awaiting a comprehensive plan prepared by the council. 

"I never received this plan."

On its part, the Sliema council insists that it is still waiting to meet the transport minister and Transport Malta to discuss a draft report it prepared containing solutions and alternatives of how the residential parking scheme it had been stopped from implementing on a trial period could be improved.

But Mizzi also reveals that his "experts" have already decided that residential parking schemes should be abolished.

"After an analysis based on feedback from all local councils and of letters published in newspapers, and after seeking the advice of experts who conducted research, it is clear that these schemes do not make sense."

In fact, the government has now also suspended similar schemes in St Paul's Bay and Naxxar.

Is the government being insensitive to the particular needs of localities like Sliema, which have an elderly population, and to situations where residents returning after work have to circle around to find a lucky parking spot?

"There are different realities everywhere, but our analysis has made clear that resident parking schemes should be abolished. This is not just my opinion, it is based on technical considerations. This is because these parking schemes simply create more congestion."

Was this scheme removed because of pressure from business establishments who abhor these schemes because they think that any parking restriction has a negative impact on business?

Mizzi is taken aback by this question.

"I had no pressure from anyone because I am a minister who listens to everyone irrespective of whether they are a businessman or not. My job is to ensure that these problems are solved by experts."

Instead, the government will be embarking on a comprehensive parking plan for the whole island, which concretely will translate in the construction of more car parks. 

But isn't there a risk that the building of more car parks will simply encourage people to keep on using their private car, thus ultimately resulting in even more cars on the road?

Mizzi disagrees with my logic.

"What I'm sure of is that if one increases parking space, one decreases the amount of cars going around in search of parking space. That is why we need a holistic plan covering the whole island, and not piecemeal solutions like resident parking schemes."

He also speaks of great interest from the private sector to invest in car parks.

Most European cities have a congestion charge. But despite the CVA, more cars were going into Valletta, when the aim was to have fewer vehicles, particularly in the historic core.

Mizzi insists that it is unacceptable that the government ended up losing money without seeing any improvement. He also questions the criteria used to exempt some categories from paying this charge. He promises that together with experts, he is working towards a solution.
james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...
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Judith Grech
Well done Minister. This is how things are to be done. PM of Norway also became a taxi driver for a day. http://video.corriere.it/premier-norvegese-stoltenberg-si-fa-tassista-video-passeggeri-sorpresi/9c446cce-032e-11e3-a0a3-a0e457635e2f
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John Abela
Mur gib lill min gabhom Malta jirkiblek il bendy bus he? X'sar minnu il Jaguar. Sur Mizzi nissuggerilek li jekk sejjer tuzhom ahseb kmieni sew ghax tasal tard zgur il Ministeru. Mela li xi hadd jirkeb il 41 u 42 mill Belt sac C'Kewwa (siegha u nofs) bil wieqfa taghmel sens.
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NIGEL DUNKERLEY
And I read that Common Sense is dead - Joe Mizzi has revived it. Thanks and please keep it up and hope other ministers will follow your example.
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Well I wish you would look at the 84 route, after 7pm its now going hourly which is not fair, also hourly on sundays, Yesterday I was in Valletta waiting for the 84 and in the space of 10 minutes there were 2 x86 for marsaxlokk plus and 82 and an 85, yet I have to wait for an hour if I miss my bus, Seems its the tourists that are more important nowdays Minister.
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Proset u grazzi lil Ministru Mizzi. Kieku fil-cabinet ta' Gonzipn kien hemm ministru wiehed, imqar b'nofs l-energija li qed jahdem biha l-Onor Mizzi, pajjizna kien jitmexxa ferm ahjar.
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THE PRIME MINISTER OF NORWAY HAS ADOPTED EXACTLY THE SAME TACTIC. FOR ONE MORNING HE TOOK THE ROLE OF TAXI DRIVER TO KNOW WHAT THE PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT. IF HE CAN DO IT SO CAN JOE MIZZI AND I WISH HIM THE WORLD OF GOOD SINCE WE DESPERATELY NEED AN AFFIDABLE, RELIABLE AND PUNCTUAL BUS SERVICE THAT CAN SAFELY TAKE PASSENGERS ON TIME TO THEIR DESTINATIONS WITHOUT ARRIVING THERE IN A WET SUIT BECAUSE THE BUS IS NOT AIRCONDITIONED.
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A perfect example of what a real minister should be like getting first hand information and implementing solutions at the same time. A few months ago, what minister Mizzi managed to do single handed in a couple of days would have cost us all thousands in consulancy fees. Proset ta' veru hope others copy his example.