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Update 2 | Transport minister insists bus service has improved, PN warn of 'total failure'

Joe Mizzi says complaints on bus routes are localised and being addressed with local councils, but Opposition warns that public transport revamp is 'a total failure'   

Tim Diacono
9 February 2016, 12:40pm
Last updated on 9 February 2016, 5:22pm
Transport minister Joe Mizzi. Photo by Ray Attard
Transport minister Joe Mizzi. Photo by Ray Attard
Transport minister dispels claims of worsening bus service
Transport Minister Joe Mizzi has staunchly defended the new bus routes, insisting that buses are arriving more frequently than they used to and that complaints are localised to certain areas. 

“It’s untrue that bus frequencies have decreased. There are more drivers, and complaints are localised to certain areas such as San Gwann,” Mizzi told MaltaToday. “We are analyzing the new routes and consulting with local councils and will announce further changes to the routes in the coming weeks.”

He refuted calls to reverse the routes to how they were prior to 20 December, insisting that local councils have responded positively to the routes and that their complaints can be responded to by improving bus punctuality and by mere tweaks to the route system.

The minister later issued a statement in defence of the routes, insisting that the majority of current commuter complaints have to do with punctuality problems rather than “the nature of the new routes”.

“Use of public transport is at an all-time high and around 200,000 people are using their tallinja card,” he said, citing the figure for the number of people who registered for the card.

Malta’s bus service is run by Malta Public Transport, a subsidiary of Spanish company Autobuses de Leon (Alesa). In a recent MaltaToday survey, a sharp seven-point increase in concern about public transport. Concern on this issue is the highest registered in MaltaToday soundings held since 2013. 

In a survey carried out by Illum amongst bus commuters, 75% said that the bus service has deteriorated since the new routes were introduced.

However, Mizzi retorted that the surveys were carried out very soon after the routes were introduced and when the system was still finding its feet.

“I recommend that you conduct a survey when the changes are complete,” Mizzi confidently said, while refusing to confirm when such changes should be expected.

Shadow transport minister Marthese Portelli later released a statement, warning that public transport has deteriorated significantly.

“While the government admittedly didn’t inherit a perfect public transport system, the situation is now much worse than it was two years ago,” she said. “Moreover, taxpayers are now paying €30 million in subsidies to the Spanish company, which is triple that what they used to pay beforehand [under Arriva].

“This government’s public transport system is a total failure, and all that Joe Mizzi has done in the past three years is reform his own reforms.”

When asked whether commuters have a right to expect a threefold improvement in the service as a result of the higher subsidy, Mizzi said that Arriva had actually demanded a €45 million subsidy to operate the same routes that are currently being run by Alesa.  

He pledged that bus stop timetables will be updated within “the coming weeks” to reflect the new routes, but stopped short of providing an exact deadline.

“We realize that the timetable issue is a problem, but it was brought about due to delays in the implementation of the routes. They were originally supposed to be gradually phased in from September, but were delayed due to union disputes and had to be introduced all at once in December.”

Malta Public Transport has so far missed two deadlines to install timetables at every single bus stop – originally set for 31 January and then later revised to 7 February.  

Mizzi cites ‘public consultation’ as reason for route removals

Despite Mizzi’s assurances, several commuters have been left frustrated as their routes were either lengthened, reduced in frequency or removed altogether as a result of the revamp. 

Marthese Portelli had in a parliamentary question last month asked Joe Mizzi to explain the rationale behind the removal of each of the routes. However, the minister simply cited “public/ local council consultation” as justification for every route change.

In a statement issued this afternoon, Mizzi insisted that commuters are being served better by Alesa than they were by Arriva under the previous PN administration. 

“Everyone can still remember the total failure of public transport up until three years ago, with a failed company, a poor service, and bendy buses catching fire,” he said. “In contrast, this government chose to work responsibly by taking decisions and carrying out the necessary changes.” 

He added that 24 new routes were introduced, 143 new buses were imported, and that buses are currently covering 2.5km more than they had under the previous administration.

“The majority of the current complaints have to do with the punctuality of the routes, rather than with the routes themselves, which is why the ministry will continue insisting that [Malta Public Transport] improves the punctuality of routes and distributes information to the public in a better manner.” 

Tim Diacono is a journalist at MaltaToday