Better late than never | Joe Mizzi

Traffic and public transport remain the government’s Achilles heel but an upbeat Joe Mizzi believes he’s on the right track 

Admittedly, Joe Mizzi occupies one of the hottest seats in government and the situation was far from rosy when he took over the transport portfolio in 2013. 

Two years earlier, the then Labour opposition led a crusade against Austin Gatt who had piloted a bumpy public transport reform, culminating in a motion of no confidence which the former minister survived by the slimmest of margins, with the Speaker casting the deciding vote after rebel Nationalist MP Franco Debono abstained. 

But despite a change in government, the departure of Anglo-German service provider Arriva and engaging a new company to run the beleaguered service, public transport remains a headache for the government and commuters alike.  

Indeed, following the introduction of new routes in December, public transport was the people’s third major concern according to a MaltaToday survey published the following month.

In an indication that concern about public transport rises above partisan considerations, 14% of Labour voters mentioned buses among their two top concerns. 

So I ask the man in charge why should the opposition and the public be more lenient with him?

“I have always maintained that things will not change overnight. We knew the situation was bad from day one and when we came to power we were faced with a bankrupt company, bendy buses catching fire and a daunting situation overall.” 

In 2014, Arriva pulled out of its 10-year contract and filed for liquidation with the government nationalising the service before signing a new agreement with Spanish company Autobuses de Leon.

The new operator, Malta Public Transport, was awarded a contract to run the public transport service towards the end of 2014. The opposition has long been calling for publication of the contract, with the government promising to publish it in “due time”.

It seems the time is finally ripe as Mizzi says that the agreement will be tabled in Parliament this week. 

With refreshing candour, he admits he did not publish the agreement before to gain political leverage.

“I intended to publish the document immediately it was concluded but given the opposition’s behaviour I realised that it was more useful to work on improving the service while allowing the opposition to speculate.”

He cites the opposition’s accusations that the new operator would fire all Maltese drivers to replace them with Spanish workers, a claim which proved to be false. 

Mizzi goes on to list a series of claims, including warnings of a price hike, which he says have all turned out to be red herrings.

But wouldn’t he put an end to speculation by publishing the agreement? 

“No, they would only misinterpret things and create more confusion to their advantage. Things are not improved by being negative,” he says. 

However he adds that the agreement will be presented to Parliament this week.

An optimistic Mizzi says that the situation is completely different to the one in 2013, adding “there’s no disaster and things are continually improving.” But he acknowledges that the service needs further improvement.

With Transport Malta chief James Piscopo silently nodding in approval, Mizzi says that the biggest challenge he faced upon taking office was changing the routes drawn up by Arriva and the previous administration. 

“Due to unforeseen delays caused by legal disputes involving the operator and trade unions, the introduction of the new routes had to be delayed and then introduced en masse instead of in the planned four-stage process.”

He now says it’s a question of fine tuning the routes and addressing problems, such as traffic congestion in certain areas, which were created by the introduction of new routes. 

The people’s main concerns, Mizzi says, revolve around punctuality and information, or the lack of it. 

“We are now pressing the operator to improve both areas,” he says.

Asked whether he is satisfied with the performance of the Spanish operator, Mizzi says “we have moved forward but we’re not yet at the level we would like to be.”

But with subsidies now reaching three times the amount Arriva received and more buses and drivers at the operator’s disposal, the service still leaves a lot to be desired.

“You cannot compare the subsidy received by Arriva to the one being given to the new company. Arriva got €10 million a year and went bankrupt and when we were in discussions with them over the new routes which are in place today, Arriva asked for €45 million a year while the Maltese bidder asked for €40 million,” Mizzi says.

Malta Public Transport will be receiving €29 million this year and Mizzi insists that the increase in commuters and the 200,000 tallinja cards in circulation confirm the improvement in the service. 

But is it acceptable that buses not only show up late, but at times do not show up at all? 

“Of course not. It’s unacceptable. That’s why we need to ensure that the operator improves punctuality. We have also flagged abuse, and disciplinary measures were taken. For example I personally stopped a bus which was not in service while it should have been in service.”

Another problem which many commuters are facing is the lack of adequate information, which has led to confusion, especially following the introduction of new routes and changes to the timetables. 

Mizzi says information will be made available online, on phones and on all bus shelters in the coming days and weeks. 

“Transport Malta and the operator are deploying people disguised as customers to monitor the situation and from the feedback we are getting, the service is improving.”

But why wasn’t the information disseminated before the new routes were introduced? Wouldn’t this have made life easier for commuters and averted confusion? 

“That’s what should have happened but the court proceedings did not allow the operator to stagger the introduction of new routes in four stages and the new routes were introduced all at once. I have insisted on the need for more information and it is now happening. Better late than never.”

How will the government exert pressure on the operator to up its game? Will it impose fines?  

“Well, in this case it wasn’t the operator’s fault. There was a dispute and the new routes could not be introduced. But it’s also a point of principle. I would rather see an improvement in punctuality and the dissemination of information than simply fine the operator. I will not commit the same mistake as the previous administration did with Arriva, where fines only compounded matters further and did not lead to an improvement in service.”

He says deterrents are important and they have been imposed but “my priority is improving the service, not imposing fines.”   

Moreover, Mizzi adds that the regulator, Transport Malta, the operator and local councils have been in talks to improve the routes in certain localities where the service has worsened, such as at San Gwann.

“We will be introducing changes to the routes in San Gwann on 17 April, while by 6 March we will see changes to the routes which serviced St Luke’s Hospital and Mater Dei Hospital.”

The arrival of the new operator also heralded the arrival of a substantial number of foreign drivers, some of whom cannot speak in Maltese or English. Is this acceptable? 

“I have been assured by the operator that foreign drivers have undergone basic language courses in English and Maltese to ensure they can communicate with commuters. However, some people do not speak English so problems arise. Yet, I would rather see the operator employ Maltese people.”

Last week, Malta Public Transport denied the opposition’s claims that it is manipulating bus drivers’ rosters to avoid paying them their due higher salaries when they are told to work on their days off.

Are working conditions in line with the law?  

“The working conditions are better than Arriva’s,” he retorts. 

But what about current working conditions? 

“The working conditions are legal and this has been confirmed by the company itself. Otherwise we would have taken action and Transport Malta has carried out its investigations. It is the opposition which insists otherwise but they have yet to answer and sustain their claims,” Mizzi says, adding that the Labour government has workers’ rights at heart.  

Listening to Mizzi speak one gets the impression that the problems are few and the situation is under control. But when was the last time he took a bus?

“A few weeks ago,” he says after a brief pause, but Mizzi insists that the better way to monitor the service is by following buses.

“I follow buses early in the morning to ensure they’re on time and no abuse takes place, such as showing they’re not in service when they should be in service or fail to stop where they should. I do not blow my own trumpet but I can assure you that some drivers know about it because I have stopped a few.”

Also, Mizzi has fared badly in the annual Rate the Minister survey conducted by this newspaper. 

Last year’s survey confirmed that transport, together with the environment, are this government’s Achilles heel, with only 22% of respondents judging Mizzi’s performance as positive, down from 25% in 2013 and 52% in February 2014.  Amid rising concern about traffic congestion and the state of public transport, Mizzi’s performance was judged negatively by 34% of respondents and ‘so-so’ by 31%. 

Was he handed a poisoned chalice?

“I’m not surprised at the survey result, because it confirms the people’s major concerns but it doesn’t mean that I caused the problems. I inherited them and I am tackling them,” he says, pointing out that the survey was conducted in October when traffic problems were worsened by the opening of schools and works on the Coast Road in Bahar ic-Caghaq. 

“It doesn’t mean that I’m failing but it means that the people’s concerns mainly revolve around traffic and public transport.”

But I point out that traffic and public transport featured highly in last month’s MaltaToday survey. What are his plans to reduce traffic in the immediate future?

Mizzi says that he has a transport plan which stretches to 2020 and emphasises the measures introduced in the 2016 Budget, which he describes as the first budget to prioritise transport. 

“The network is what it is and a recent study has shown that the inefficiency in public transport has led to greater use of personal vehicles.” 

Does he have specific targets in terms of reducing vehicles on the road and increasing the number of people who make use of public transport?

“We cannot tell people to stop using their cars, it would never work in Malta. So we need to find other solutions, such as encouraging car sharing,” he says, underlining other measures encouraging the use of bicycles and motorcycles.  

In recent months there has been increased talk of innovative alternative modes of transport, such as an underground system and a monorail. Fantasy or reality?

“We don’t exclude anything but we have to look at the viability of such projects and that’s what we are doing. As soon as we have all studies at hand we’ll move forward.”

I turn to another of Mizzi’s responsibilities, which might not receive the same level of attention but could play a pivotal role in the country’s economy. 

What are the prospects of Malta striking black gold? 

“For the time being, given the volatile global market and plummeting oil price, oil exploration has taken a backseat. But big companies are looking at places where they can invest and which will put them in good stead for the future. And this is an opportunity for us to encourage companies to drill. We are also working together with neighbouring countries to venture in joint activities in the disputed areas. 

This brings to mind former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s calls on the government to clarify whether it had “horse-traded” Malta’s rights for oil exploration with Italy in return for absorbing migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. 

“It’s absolutely false. I’m a responsible minister and it only goes on to show that the opposition is not constructive.” 

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