A bus we can’t afford to miss

Malta’s brief experience with an international public transport operator may not have been a major success, but there is much to learn from it if the service is to improve.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Malta's brief experience with an international public transport operator may not have been a major success, but there is much to learn from it if the service is to improve.

Now that Arriva is gone, the new administration faces much the same challenges as its predecessor four years ago. In a sense, the former government's approach to the 2008 transport reform was to try and square the circle: decreasing public transport subsidies, yet somehow still keeping tariffs low while also improving the quality of the service.

The end result was an overall improvement in the physical condition of buses - especially with regard to emissions - but with the notable exception of Gozo and some central well-served localities, most commuters saw a deterioration when it came to frequency and punctuality of service.

This was perhaps unavoidable, as some of the cost-cutting measures can be seen to have impacted the standards of service. The long, winding panoramic routes were clearly introduced with the idea of saving on government subsidies; but many woke up to the reality that it simply took more time with the new system to arrive from point A to point B... even though the ride was undeniably more comfortable.

The former government's idea of saving on subsidies did not pay off, either. Before Arriva came in 2008, the Maltese taxpayer paid €6.5 million in subsidies, while the amount for 2009 went up to €10 million. Arriva were contracted to offer the service at a subsidy from €4.9 million. But after just a year subsidies were increased to €6.4 million, and again to €8 million by December 2012: €1.5 million more than under the old system.

One undeniable advantage was however the lower tariffs. A €6.50 week-ticket made the service 31% cheaper than the old for anyone who uses it more than three times a day on a five-day basis. And in return we got air-conditioned, cleaner, more accessible and safer buses.

Considering that the service is mainly used by the most vulnerable categories, including pensioners, students, immigrants and low-income groups, it is imperative that the current tariff system is retained. The flipside, however, is that the sustainability of the tariff system hinged on a discriminatory dual fare system for tourists and non-residents, which in practice proved messy. Drivers had to use their judgment to arbitrarily distinguish between tourists and non-tourists; moreover, the system was deemed unacceptable by the European Commission, and had to be scrapped.

Government now has the opportunity to build on the positive aspects of the Arriva system while improving on the negative. But to achieve this, it must be ready to invest in public transport.

Already, however, it seems to be cutting costs. Some of the vehicles replacing the infamous bendy-buses do not conform to the Euro-5 standards of their predecessors. This represents an unacceptable step backwards in terms of higher emissions. The new buses should be removed from the roads and replaced by a new contingent of Euro-5 buses as quickly as possible.

We are still faced with the question of how to keep to the service affordable. Now that the fares can no longer be subsidised by over-charging tourists, the sustainability of the tariff system depends more than ever on the availability of public subsidies. How will the present government attempt to square this circle?

One temptation will surely be to sacrifice one of the original aims of the reform, and raise the fares across the board. But if the price of a bus-ticket goes up, so too will the political price to be paid by the Labour administration... not to mention the blow to an already burgeoning traffic problem, as higher bus fares would undermine the appeal of public transport as a cheaper alternative to private cars.

There is also the issue of avoiding further chaos. One shortcoming of the Arriva reform was its insensitivity to older users whose transport habits were suddenly interrupted. While it is of fundamental importance that the public transport system entices new users, it must not become insensitive to older users who need more time to adapt to change. Nor should government go to the other extreme by focusing exclusively on the needs of a declining sector of the population.

For public transport to survive, it has to cater for both modern and emerging needs as well as existing demographic realities.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the present government is how to achieve all these aims without reneging on its own electoral promise of an open, transparent way of doing politics. Government is duty bound to conduct the transport reform in full transparency: with the future operator being chosen through a rigorous public international tendering process, and not by mere call for expressions of interest. Otherwise, any increase in subsidies will be perceived as a gift to a private operator.

And yet, we still do not have any clear idea of government's plans even at this late stage. All we know is that there is too much at stake now to risk any repeat of past errors. Public transport reform is a bus that the Muscat administration simply cannot afford to miss.

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In my opinion there were a number of factors that contributed to this 'farce'... First was the impossibility of getting older people to adapt. This was clear when the 'hub' system was starting in place. I thought it was a dead cool system. A smaller bus doing the rounds in the villages, and depositing the passengers at Marsa, from which a bendy would take them to Valletta... my daughters used it incessantly when it was still functionig, and dare I say it... it was great. However people in this country resist change, so it was back to the old system. The fact that the numbers were changed made life far more difficult. Why did that happen? The longer routes when getting from A to B were preposterous! Go along two or three main routes in the villages and towns... nobody is complaining for walking two or three blocks... The size of the buses is outrageous for our streets, especially if using the inner-village winding streets... Drivers have to 'step on it' because of time constraints... also due to the heavy traffic which has increased since Arriva..uh... arrived... In gozo, the system works... and it does so perfectly... up to last Saturday at least. I used 6 buses , and all of them were practically on time, every time! there is, of course, far less traffic. Eventually, all our old system needed was a cleanup of a certain segment of drivers who would bully everyone. Nothing more, nothing less. PS. Great article