“We are determined to deliver the highest quality service possible in Malta. Customers and their experiences are at the heart of our service. All our customers are important and no effort will be spared to ensure that all of the services we are trusted to deliver will be provided.” – Malta Public Transport
On 5th September 1800 the island of Malta, in preference to being under French Napoleonic administration, invited the British to rule the island as a Dominion of the Empire. Except for a difficult little period in the 1970s when Malta declared itself independent under the leadership of Dom Mintoff the Maltese have been inviting the British back ever since.
I am glad of that because in the 1990s I visited the historic island two or three times and I have always wanted to go back.
We arrived late in the morning and immediately found the bus connection to Mellieha Bay in the north of the island and sat back for the seventy minute journey through the centre of the island. I have heard it said that you either love Malta or you hate it, there are no half measures, there is no sitting on the fence. I love it but as we crawled through the growling traffic, through the unattractive suburbs of Valletta, past the inevitable McDonalds and Burger King and through miles and miles of road works I wasn’t so sure about Kim’s initial reaction.
I read somewhere that Malta was the last place in Europe to be cleared up after the Second-World-War, I remembered that on my last visit it was rather untidy and even now, nearly twenty years later there was clearly still some work in progress!
One thing that I had forgotten was, that as a result of years of British rule, in Malta traffic drives on the left. Only four countries in Europe drive on the left. Just for a bit of fun, can you name them?
At last we left the urban sprawl and moved into the countryside and the concrete gave way to green meadows. Malta is overwhelmingly cream and buff coloured, the buildings constructed from local stone, the soil, the rocks and all along the route dainty yellow flowers complimented the natural colours of the earth.
I knew that some things would have changed since my last visit in 1997 and the first and most obvious thing was the buses because up until 2011 Malta had a wonderful bus service with a fleet of vehicles mostly imported from the UK, privately owned, lovingly maintained and customized and painted in a distinctive orange livery with gleaming chrome that required sunglasses just to look at them..
Even in the late 1990s these old buses were, admittedly, beginning to creak with age and by 2011 the majority didn’t meet EU standards on carbon emissions, their fate was sealed a thousand miles away in Brussels and the upgrade could scarcely have been more undignified.
Under the old system each bus was owned by its driver, who would decorate it himself, giving each its own personality and charm. Some buses had been passed down from father to son, or even been hand built by the family that owned them. The service was crudely privatised which meant that the Maltese Government no longer had to pay expensive subsidies (this is a lot like the sad demise of the old Greek Island Ferry service story) and was taken over by a British private sector company called Aviva whose modern fleet replaced Malta’s beautiful vintage buses which now languish, awaiting rescue in storage at Valletta harbour.
The Perils of Privatisation…
By all accounts the transfer was chaotic and farcical, three hundred buses were reduced to one hundred and fifty, the old bus drivers either refused to work for Aviva and didn’t turn up for work on the first day or couldn’t be employed because many of them didn’t have driving licences, the new routes were inefficient and the buses too big for the narrow Maltese streets. Articulated ‘bendy’ buses rejected by London were sent to Malta and three of these caught fire because the heat melted the rubber bendy bit in the middle.
The Company name of Arriva is Italian for ‘arriving’ (a language that many Maltese speak due to the close proximity), soon after privatisation it was quickly nicknamed Aspetta – ‘waiting’.
This doesn’t surprise me at all. I have worked for the private sector trying to provide public service and it rarely ever works on account of the public sector ethos of service and private sector profit being completely incompatible. Based on my experience I think I am well qualified to say that privatisation never results in improvement despite all of the extravagant promises.
It was an operational and financial disaster and by December 2013 Arriva had run up losses of over €50 million. The contract was terminated by agreement and the service reverted to public control as Malta Public Transport. The Government didn’t really want the burden of the service however so in January 2015 it awarded a new contract to Autobuses Urbanos de León who appear to have picked up where Aviva left off but I’ll tell you more about that later.
As far as I could make out the bus route map suggested that the bus stop was quite near to the hotel so as we got close I pressed the bell for the driver to stop. He ignored it and carried on so I walked to the front to take the matter up with him. He told me the bus didn’t stop there but in about another kilometre or so. To be fair to him he took pity on us and stopped the bus at the side of the road but he wasn’t terribly happy about it.
It turns out that for some reason the bus company doesn’t think it sensible to stop near the several hotels flanking Mellieha Bay where it is convenient for passengers to get off but thinks it is more useful to have one on a remote roundabout half way between two villages which is no good to anybody.
This reminded me of when I worked for a company called Cory Environmental in refuse collection services. One man I worked with thought he had a brilliant solution and produced work schedules in alphabetical order! All the roads beginning with A-F on Monday, G-K on Tuesday and so on throughout the week, it didn’t occur to him that this meant driving hundreds of unnecessary miles and wasting hundreds of pounds worth of diesel. I seem to remember that he had only a very short career in waste management. Rather like the tendering team at Arriva who won the Malta contract I imagine!
Anyway, I could sense that Kim wasn’t terribly happy and was sliding towards the hating Malta side of the scale…