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A bus stop named ‘Alcapone’

A young bus traveller waiting at the Valletta terminus finds comfort in the scant shade of a recently planted tree on the first day of operation of new Arriva buses. More temporary shelters have sprung up since then.

A young bus traveller waiting at the Valletta terminus finds comfort in the scant shade of a recently planted tree on the first day of operation of new Arriva buses. More temporary shelters have sprung up since then.

Joy-riders experimented on the first day out for new Arriva buses on our roads two Sundays ago.

“I have never been down this street before – the countryside is so beautiful”, remarked an elderly man who had started out from Żejtun and found himself on the route to Għajn Tuffieħa.

Noticing speakers fitted in the ceiling of the bus during the journey, passengers joked that the driver should play them some music as they used to do.

On occasion the former yellow bus drivers, inspired by loud kilometre-crunching music, could whisk us to our destinations at breakneck speed, descending at Ċirkewwa white-knuckled with wind-blown hair in disarray. Despite risking life and limb we were pleased enough at having not missed the ferry boat to Gozo, again.

Six days into the new service, a bus trip from Valletta to Manikata took an agonising three hours when the old, more direct route used to take all of 45 minutes.

Time-saving is a pivotal incentive when it comes to persuading people to leave their cars at home and venture out on public transport. Bus companies, on the other hand, play off shorter routes against possible economic trade-offs of the longer, weaving routes in the hopes of widening the catchment for fares along the way.

Air-conditioning may make the longer journeys more bearable in the heat (unless the bus is too cold or the AC breaks down) but has an environmental impact. Windows that open might have been a better choice across the span of a year.

The unfamiliar motion and sharp braking puts passengers who are unsteady on their feet at a greater disadvantage. Vibrations on an Għajn Tuffieħa-bound bus on the first day were moderate to strong.

General vibration when idling in certain models is a problem that has not gone unflagged in Arriva’s own UK homeland, where a feisty passenger from East Staffordshire tweeted:

“Why do Arriva buses shake so much? I feel like I’ve got Parkinson’s.”

Even after things have settled down following review, as we very much hope, the new buses and convoluted routes will take some getting used to. Some will be pleased that a new service now runs right past their door. Others will still be left mourning the overnight disappearance of their old bus route as they knew it.

From modest beginnings as a motorcycle sales and repair workshop in Sunderland, transport group Arriva’s first venture into the European market was a buy-up of Scandinavian bus operations.

Last year the company, one of the big five transport operators in the UK, was bought up by Deutsche Bahn in a merger approved by the European Commission, providing DB shed some of its rail acquisitions.

Arriva was attractive to Deutsche Bahn, which paid over €1.8 billion to acquire the group, because of its mainland businesses providing footholds in Europe’s liberalising transport market. From this perspective, Arriva is hardly seen as a dud firm, ranking among the top British transport companies with a presence in 12 European countries where it operates bus and metro systems and a train network in the UK.

Deutsche Bahn’s own positioning in Europe stands to be strengthened through Arriva’s successful targeting of Europe’s increasingly liberalised and fast-growing transport markets which are of strategic interest to the German group’s expansion plans. The question is, will bigger be better? DB says Arriva will still be Arriva (for better or worse).

Cash-strapped local authorities in Europe are selling off transport services in a process expected to lead to the full privatisation of the market by 2018. It is expected that successive mergers will lead to European transport being governed by just three or four big transport groups.

Train commuters in Germany are no strangers to delays, cancellations and breakdowns, often blamed on the weather.

Ice and snow in particular caused chaos in the first week of January when Berlin’s S-Bahn commuter network came to a standstill on many lines with only 213 out of 562 trains running. It got so bad that at one point the company even considered meeting the cost of taxi rides for people living along lines that had been temporarily closed.

Germany’s rail travel problems are not restricted to a certain time of year. It’s a running joke that the German railway has four enemies: spring, summer, fall and winter.

Buses in India, on the other hand, tend to break down mostly in the summer heat. Of 250 malfunctions on buses running in Mumbai last March most of the breakdowns were caused by overheating engines. A spokesman said this was due to shortage of maintenance staff and lack of proper checking before they leave the depots.

Worryingly, an ex-employee of Arriva London who once worked as a vehicle examiner has claimed that during the time he worked there, buses were often sent back on the road with known defects.

“Most of the time these are minor defects with no real detrimental effect on the safe operation of the vehicle.” Occasionally, he claimed, vehicles that are unsafe are sent back out on the road “because lost mileage is too costly for the company and ultimately the shareholders.” Bus companies sometimes faced fines by London Transport (TFL) if they did not complete their allotted mileage.

We can only continue to hope for a better approach from Arriva and Transport Malta as the working population deserves better.

That said, it was a joy taking the bus to an arts festival event in Floriana last Tuesday and finding a bus home afterwards at 11.23 pm. It seems that, despite all the growing pains, public transport in Malta is finally growing up.

Keeping us mildly bemused throughout the bumpy changeover to Arriva buses are the names assigned to some of the bus stops along various routes. Għar id-Dud is shortened to ‘Dud’ and ‘Splash’ for water park while ‘Channel’ might have been less puzzling than ‘Vapur’ for day-trippers travelling by bus around Gozo. ‘Alcapone’, apparently named after a garage on the Mellieħa route, takes the cake.

The colour teal has been popularly renamed ‘Arriva Green’, as noted by the Urban Dictionary. A bus enthusiast believes that the old yellow-orange colours could have been incorporated in a signal logo against the blue-green background. Others think the belching old buses are better forgotten.

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