Missing the bus, again

If expectations were high for Austin Gatt’s new bus service in 2011, they were higher still for the plans of the incoming Labour administration. And this is where history can be seen to repeat itself.

History, as they say, repeats itself, and this is particularly true of Malta’s long history of public transport woes.

The situation facing the bus service today is not too dissimilar for the one prevailing in 2011, when the former Nationalist government embarked on a reform which got off to a very shaky (to say the least) start.

It is worth recalling the basic problems that afflicted the Arriva service back then. Transport Malta had radically revised the bus routes in a bid to lower operational costs (and, by extension, subsidies); but a lack of proper information campaigns resulted in widespread confusion which threw the entire service into disarray.

Matters were admittedly not helped by a wildcat strike by bus drivers on the first day of operation. All the same, however, the reform did not elevate the standards to the promised level; and this failure ultimately dented the Nationalist party’s credibility at the polls.

Labour, then in Opposition, was quick to capitalise on a groundswell of discontent, and rode comfortably to victory in 2013 on a number of promises. Transport reform was one of them, but so was transparency and accountability in the way it conducted such reforms.

If expectations were high for Austin Gatt’s new bus service in 2011, they were higher still for the plans of the incoming Labour administration. And this is where history can be seen to repeat itself.  

Spanish bus service operator Autobuses de Leon claims that patronage of the bus service has increased by 7% in its first year of operations, and that the introduction of the new ticketing system was a factor in this success.

So far, so good. But the quality of the service is at least as bad as when Austin Gatt was (rightly) massacred by the Opposition and the press upon the introduction of Arriva in 2011. Before the 2013 election, Transport Minister Joe Mizzi promised not to repeat the same mistakes that dogged his predecessor’s efforts, but his own contributions have not been very different at all.

The question which Mizzi should ask himself is whether the service today is better than the service provided by Arriva in 2013. The answer is probably no, because while the standards have more or less remained the same, the new operators have no excuses.  

The new operator, Malta Public Transport, has all the tools at its disposal to offer a better service. They have a bigger fleet, more drivers and above all a bigger subsidy. Moreover they have had more than one year to assess the situation, and now possess the necessary data and experience to implement changes that should not only encourage more people to use public transport, but also address pollution and traffic congestion.

While Arriva received some €10 million a year in subsides, the taxpayer is now forking out more than twice that figure to bankroll the new operator.  But for all these favourable conditions, punctuality and efficiency remain an issue for the public transport service. Moreover, the engagement of foreign drivers has compounded problems, since most of them have very limited knowledge of the English language and obviously do not speak any Maltese.

Similarly, new routes and the adjustment of existing ones have created the same confusion as witnessed in July 2011, when Arriva revolutionised the system. Yet the new operator, with the blessing of Transport Malta and the government, has introduced the changes without launching an information campaign ahead of the reform.

In Arriva’s case, at least some effort was made to raise awareness about the new system. There has been no analogous effort to familiarise passengers with the system introduced this year. Commuters are still left totally in the dark, as timetables have not been distributed yet and put up on bus stops around the country. 

Drivers, especially foreigners, are not much wiser as they’re either incapable of communicating with commuters, or do not know of the changes themselves. The new operator has dismantled the information system provided on electronic screens at bus stops.

Meanwhile prices and the level of efficiency have not changed much. People rightly expected more from the new service than marginally cheaper fares. The fundamental aims of any public transport service – punctuality, reliability, regularity – are every bit as elusive today as they were before the election.

Nor is this the only broken promise. Despite basing its entire electoral manifesto on the principles of transparency and meritocracy, the Labour government has been inscrutable in its dealings with the successful bidder of a public contract.  MaltaToday has been calling for the publication of the contract signed with Autobuses de Leon from the outset. This request has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Lack of transparency is not new to this government, but in this case it is a double disappointment. We are not only denied a better service, but we are also denied information regarding why the service has not improved. The people do not only deserve the decent public transport service they were promised. They expect full transparency in the agreement struck between the government and the Spanish company… and for that matter, all agreements governing public contracts.

Yet again, it seems we have missed the transport reform bus.

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