Tag Archives: Gozo Channel Ferry

My Holidays in Malta – Privatisation and The Buses

Malta Buses

“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

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, customized and painted in a distinctive orange livery with gleaming chrome decoration that required sunglasses just to look at them.

Even in the late 1990s these old buses with their growling engines and banging gear boxes were, admittedly, beginning to creak with age and by 2011 the majority didn’t meet EU standards on carbon emissions and their fate was sealed a thousand miles away in Brussels and the upgrade could scarcely have been more undignified.

Sometimes they weren’t even that safe…

Malta Bus Accident 1978

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 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 somewhere at Valletta harbour.

Gozo Ferry (2)

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’.

“Unfortunately, the new designed routes take you half way around Malta in order to save money on buses – that is the problem when an accountant comes in with an Excel sheet and dictates with no real knowledge of what the people need, want or require.” – Malta Tourism Authority (2013)

Buses of Malta postcard

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 .

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!

Malta Bus

 

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My Holidays in Malta, Mgarr in Gozo

Fishing Boat Mgarr Gozo Malta

“Gozo remained an utterly private place and lucky the man who could find the key, turn the lock and vanish inside.”  – Nicholas Monserrat

Mgarr GozoSculpture Mgarr Ferry Port Gozo Malta

This is the port of Mgarr in 1997 when I first visited…

Mgarr 1991

Entrance Tickets, Malta to Gozo Ferry

gozo-ferry

“Gozo remained an utterly private place and lucky the man who could find the key, turn the lock and vanish inside.” – Nicholas Monserrat

We had debated what to do today and we finally decided that we would visit the neighbouring island of Gozo.

Just to be clear, this is the island of Gozo and not Gozer the Gozerain from the film ‘Ghostbusters

This is Gozer…

gozer

This is Gozo…

Gozo Postcard

Getting there should have been straight forward but this morning we had our first experience of the inefficient bus service.  There was a stop at the end of the hotel drive and we arrived there at about nine forty-five which should have given us plenty of time to reach the ferry port about two and a half miles away for the eleven o’clock crossing.

We saw the first bus approach and we saw the first bus pass by without stopping – it was full.  A second bus came and passed without stopping and then a third, it seemed as though everyone was going to Gozo this morning.

Malta Bus Chaos

By this time it was almost ten o’clock and Kim made the decision that we should walk.  I said that we wouldn’t make it in time, Kim said that she was confident that we would, I said we wouldn’t, she said we would and so we set off at a brisk pace.

Well, just in time, we made it and that took care of all of the breakfast calories and eventually we calmed down, cooled down and enjoyed a thirty minute ferry journey to our destination, passing as we went the third of the Maltese islands, Comino.

For our day on Gozo we had booked one of those open topped tourist buses.  I don’t usually like these because they seem to spend a lot of wasted time going to places that you don’t want to go but the man at the hotel reception had persuaded me that this was a good option because we could be sure of seeing all of the places of interest in one day which could not be guaranteed if relying on the privatised bus service.  We found the bus, made our way to the top deck and waited for it to fill up with passengers and leave.

Xewkija Gozo Parish Church

The first really noticeable thing about Gozo was how less busy the place was compared to Malta and we drove through villages and open fields on practically empty roads.  First we came to the village of Xewkija which was a modest place but has an enormous church with what is claimed to be the third largest unsupported church dome in the World.

To put that into some sort of perspective the largest is St Peter’s in Rome (fourth largest city in Western Europe) and the second largest is St Paul’s in London (population 7.5 million, give or take a thousand) Xewkija is a village in Gozo with a population of about three thousand, three hundred people.

Our plan was to stay on board the bus and complete the route to the very far side of the island at a place called Dwejra where there is a natural rock formation called the azure window which attracts people like bees to a honey pot mostly it seems on account of the fact that it was used as a location for the TV show ‘Game of Thrones’ although I cannot confirm this because I have never watched it.

Azure Window Gozo Malta

It was an interesting little stop and we clambered over the erosion scarred limestone rocks, rock pools where nothing lived and the salt pans which was the reason why.  It was very busy so we made our way back to the shabby little ring of tourist trap shops and bars, had a beer and then on account of the number of people who might be competing to get on the bus made our way in good time back to the stop ready to move on to Victoria.

Victoria is the capital of Gozo.  It used to be called Rabat but in 1887 the British renamed it to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria.  I can’t help thinking that it is rather arrogant to go around changing place names in such a superior way.  A lot of people on Gozo still call the place Rabat – Good For Them!

The bus dropped us off and we made our way to the centre of the city, to St George’s Square and the Basilica of the same Saint.  As it was 23rd April there was a lot of bell ringing and celebration but the disappointment was that the square resembled a construction site as it was in the process of restoration and improvement.

Victoria Gozo Malta

We tend to think of St George as an English Saint but a lot of the rest of Europe has claimed him as well because St. George is also the Patron Saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia and I wouldn’t mind betting that all of them will do an awful lot more to celebrate 23rdApril every year than we do!

We moved on from St George’s building site and made our way to the Citadel at the very top of the city which as the name suggests is a medieval fortress city in the most defensible position on the island.  This also turned out to be rather a disappointment because this was another construction site.  The Citadella is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list and it looks as though the Gozians are putting in a bit of extra effort (courtesy of EU heritage funding) to give the application a boost.

saint-george

The time was passing quickly now and there was still more of the island to see so we returned to the bus station, stopping briefly to buy a Maltese cheese pie for lunch (very tasty by-the-way) before rejoining the tour bus for the remainder of the trip.

First we went to the fishing village of  Xlendi where due to the fact that I was confused by the schedule we forgot to get off and so we stayed on and went back to Victoria and then to the other side of the island to the holiday village of Marsalforn where we stopped for forty-five minutes and walked around the sandy beach and the pretty harbour.

Rejoining the bus we went next to the UNESCO site megalithic temples at Nadur and the directly back to the port to catch the six o’clock ferry back to Malta.  Twenty years ago the ferry used to arrive and drop passengers off directly on the quay side but now there is a posh (EU funded) ferry terminal with ticket desks, lounges and rules and regulations. I preferred it the old way.

Mgarr Gozo

 

Malta, Ferry to Gozo and a Tourist Bus Ride

Gozo Postcard

“Gozo remained an utterly private place and lucky the man who could find the key, turn the lock and vanish inside.”  – Nicholas Monserrat

With a room that faced west we were woken early by a shaft of sunlight piercing the gaps in the curtains and finding its way into the room like a stiletto knife.  We were on bed and breakfast board arrangements so as soon as we were ready we made our way to the busy dining room where we enjoyed a very acceptable buffet breakfast.

We were undecided about what to do today and we finally agreed that we would visit the neighbouring island of Gozo.

Mgarr Gozo

Malta Bus Issues…

Getting there should have been straight forward but this morning we had our first experience of the inefficient island bus service.  There was a stop at the end of the hotel drive and we arrived there at about nine forty-five which should have given us plenty of time to reach the ferry port about two and a half miles away.

We saw the first bus approach and we saw the first bus pass by without stopping – it was full and it turns out that this is one of the biggest complaints about the new Malta bus service with people stranded for hours at bus stops.  A second bus came and went and then a third, it seemed as though everyone was going to Gozo this morning.

By this time it was almost ten o’clock and Kim made the decision that we should walk.  I said that we wouldn’t make it in time, Kim said that she was confident that we would, I said we wouldn’t, she said we would, I lost the debate and so we set off at a brisk pace.

I still didn’t think that we would make it but Kim told me not to be so negative.

By ten past ten we were walking very quickly and by fifteen minutes past we were actually jogging.  Luckily we found a path that was a short cut which reduced the distance a little but I still couldn’t see how we could possibly make it.  At twenty five past we had about five hundred metres to go so we increased our jogging effort to Usain Bolt sprint speed and made it on board and collapsed, panting and sweat streaked on the sun deck with about a minute to spare.  I couldn’t decide between going to the bar for a beer or trying to find the on board defibrillator.

Malta to Gozo Ferry…

Malta_Map (1)

Well, that took care of all of the breakfast calories and eventually we calmed down, cooled down and enjoyed a thirty minute ferry journey to our destination.

The crossing took us close to the third of the Maltese islands in the archipelago, the tiny islet of Comino which except for a couple of hotels is virtually uninhabited for most of the year and we just watched it slowly slip by on the starboard side of the boat as the throaty diesel engine kept a steady course for Gozo.

Gozo Hop on-Hop off tour…

For our day on Gozo we had booked one of those open topped hop on-hop off tourist buses.  I don’t usually like these because they seem to spend a lot of wasted time going to places that you don’t want to go to but the man at the hotel reception had persuaded me that this was a good option because we could be sure of seeing all of the places of interest in one day which could not be guaranteed if relying on the privatised bus service.  We found the bus, made our way to the top deck and waited for it to fill up with passengers and leave.

Xewkija Gozo Parish Church

The first really noticeable thing about Gozo was how less busy the place was compared to Malta and we drove through villages and open fields on practically empty roads.

First we came to the village of Xewkija which was a modest place but has an enormous church with what is claimed to be the fourth or perhaps even the third largest unsupported church dome in the World.  To put that into some sort of perspective the largest is St Peter’s in Rome (fourth largest city in Western Europe) and the second largest is St Paul’s in London (population 7.5 million, give or take a thousand).  Xewkija is a village in rural Gozo with a population of about three thousand, three hundred people.  They didn’t have Christopher Wren to design it or Michelangelo to do the interior decoration – they built it themselves!

Gozo and the Game of Thrones…

Our plan was to stay on board the bus and complete the route to the very far side of the island at a place called Dwejra where there is a natural rock formation called the azure window which attracts people like bees to a honey pot mostly it seems on account of the fact that it was used as a location for the TV show ‘Game of Thrones’ although I cannot confirm this because I have never watched it.

Azure Window Gozo Malta

It was an interesting little stop and we clambered over the erosion scarred limestone rocks, shallow pools where nothing lived and the salt pans which was the reason why.  It was very busy so we made our way back to the shabby little ring of tourist trap shops and bars, had a beer and then on account of the number of people who might want to get on the bus made our way in good time back to the stop*.

The French don’t like queueing…

We were there first but the number of people was beginning to increase, a lot of them were French and it was clear from the look in their eyes that they had no intention of forming an orderly line.  Whatever people might think of the British, one thing they are good at is good manners in a queue and stoicism in taking their turn.  Not so the French and as the bus arrived they surged forward and formed a unruly mob as everyone competed to be on the bus first.

The whole thing was rather like the first set scrum of a British Lions/New Zealand All Blacks Rugby Test Match, muscles bulging, eyes popping, sweat dripping, elbows flying and fingers gouging and this, let me tell you was only the women!

Kim was having none of this and she sharpened her elbows and held firm.  As she reached the step onto the bus she put out both arms and clung like a limpet to the handrails on each side so that no one could pass.  I watched her.  She was like a hundred metre runner at the Olympic Games approaching the finishing line and glancing left and right, left and right just to make sure that no one crept up on her and overtook at the final moment.

So we got on board and stayed in our top deck seats until we reached the island capital of Victoria.

Gozo Countryside

There is a rather sad postscript to this story because in a mighty storm on the morning of 7th March 2015 the stack and the arch were overcome by the wind and the surf and crashed into the sea.  Sadly the Azure Window on Gozo is no more and presumably the sightseeing bus tour will have to rearrange its itinerary.