Time for a public transport rethink

It would be more helpful for Tranpsort Minister Joe Mizzi to issue calls for expressions of interest in other types of public transport, with a view to finally kick-starting a truly radical and far-reaching reform of Malta’s public transport service.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna


Revelations that Arriva has registered losses of up to €36 million in its first two years of operation can only raise serious questions about the long-term survival prospects of Malta's only public transport service.

Placed in the context of a public transport reform which was widely criticised over the same time period, the announcement of these losses couldn't have come at a more inauspicious time.

Arriva has already been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the past weeks and months. Apart from an apparent epidemic of spontaneous combustion among its unpopular bendy buses - an epidemic that has been witnessed in other countries, too, including the UK, from where our own specimens were originally purchased - the service itself has long been dogged by complaints regarding overall reliability, as well as the direct contribution of Arriva buses to an increasingly impossible traffic congestion scenario.

Such concerns were hardly helped by Transport Minister Joe Mizzi's candid admission that his government has "no Plan B" should the German operator decide to pull out of Malta altogether.

Arriva has so far played down speculation that it may be actively considering this option; but in view of its financial situation, it is not an eventuality that can safely be discounted.

It was therefore surprising to hear a government official admit that Malta would effectively be plunged into deep crisis should this same eventuality materialise. Nor did Mizzi's admission help to strengthen government's negotiating position in a possible future discussion on the continued sustainability of the service as a whole.

It is worth remembering that Arriva has benefited from a subsidy which started out at €6.2m per annum... only to grow by 40% to €10.2 million this year, as a result of changes to the route system (among other factors which also contributed to the financial shortfall).

Given the minister's frank acknowledgment that there is simply no alternative to Arriva, one can only wonder how government might respond should it be faced with demands for yet another increase to this subsidy.

Even without this consideration, the present situation leaves much to be desired for other reasons. Following this summer's spate of fires, government is now holding talks with Arriva over the future of bendy buses in Malta. It is likely that the result of these talks will be an agreement to phase out the use of such unwieldy and cumbersome modes of transport, which most would agree are simply too large to cope with Malta's capillary road network in the first place.

But this decision would automatically cost the service space for over 7,000 passengers, thus necessitating an alternative that would handle the same number of passengers without placing too much stress on the traffic system.

At a glance the ideal solution would be to simply replace bendy buses with a larger number of smaller buses; but this would entail more capital investment, which could further undermine the sustainability of the service as a whole while simultaneously increasing the number of vehicles on the road, thus exacerbating existing traffic problems.

In view of these and other thorny complications, perhaps the time has come to finally start thinking outside the box with a view to weaning our country off its total reliance on only one public transport provider to meet all our transport needs.

Malta is arguably the only country in Europe to still rely almost exclusively on one mode of transport for its day-to-day commuting needs - in our case, buses (taxis being viewed as too expensive for daily use). Now that this same monolithic service is visibly struggling to make ends meet - and that further investment in the service would appear to be inevitable anyway - the simple truth is that Malta can no longer afford to continue disregarding other possibilities that have been suggested in the past.

Past objections along the lines that underground railways (or overhead monorails, tramways, or any other alternatives to the traditional bus service) are 'too expensive' for Malta's budget must now be seen in the context of a public transport bill that is steadily increasing, thanks to a constantly inflating annual subsidy.

The same goes for the previously discarded idea of a permanent, water-based transport service: for instance, a ferry system of the kind that once connected the Grand Harbour to Marsamxett and beyond.

Viewed from this angle, it may make more commercial sense to invest larger amounts in a more holistic and varied mix of public transport services - ideally, operated by multiple service providers in order to avoid reliance on only one entity - than to spend just as much on endless annual subsidies, only to end up with an erratic, unreliable and unpopular service which doesn't even meet the country's exigencies in the first place.

So instead of publicly admitting that his government simply has no 'Plan B' for the future of Malta's public transport needs, perhaps it would be more helpful for Transport Minister Mizzi to issue calls for expressions of interest in other types of public transport, with a view to finally kick-starting a truly radical and far-reaching reform of Malta's public transport service.

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"Given the minister's frank acknowledgment that there is simply no alternative to Arriva". I have my doubts if this categorical statement flows from the lips of Joe Mizzi! I am sure that there must be a very liberal translation somewhere in there.