“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…
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.
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)
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!