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Arriva are here, but will they get there?

Arriva’s first week of operating the new public transport system was marked by driver walk-outs, lengthy delays, long journeys, irate commuters, bus breakdowns and faulty equipment. Patrick Cooke finds the jury is still out on whether Arriva is moving in the right direction.

Grace Farrugia

Commuter from Vittoriosa

We are not happy at all with the new system. We live in the south and before it was much better. When we came from Vittoriosa this morning it took us one hour to get to Valletta, when before it used to take 20 minutes. The buses stop in too many places.

We don’t care about air-conditioning or new technology; we care about the service. The drivers are nice and well-trained and the fares are good, but the routes have to change. I blame the government for this mess.

Doreen Vella

Commuter from Senglea

The new bus service has meant a lot of waiting. We don’t have buses in Senglea, Kalkara and Vittoriosa in the morning to go to work until 9 a.m. Before, we would have a bus every 20 minutes.

Now we’re supposed to have one every half-hour but it never happens. Sometimes they change the numbers of the bus and we get taken all over the place. From Monday till today (Friday) there has been no improvement.

The minister said the system was supposed to be working well today but it’s not. I don’t think it’s the fault of the Arriva workers. Actually, the drivers are better than before and the buses are nice and cool, if the air conditioning works. We will use the water buses if the situation persists.

Helen Cotrel

French commuter living in Sliema

I live in Sliema and it is now very complicated for me to get home. Yesterday it took me one and a half hours to get home from Valletta. In the morning it is the same. But it has been gradually improving through the week and the drivers are nicer than the previous ones.

However, I prefer the old buses because they had more character – they should have painted the new buses yellow as people associate yellow buses with Malta. The new buses should be costing me a lot more than the old buses because I don’t have a Maltese ID card but the drivers are not asking me for ID and they are just charging me Maltese prices, so I don’t find it too expensive.

Reno Calleja

Former Transport Authority chairman

The greatest responsibility for this fiasco lies at the door of Transport Minister Austin Gatt and the Prime Minister who supported him. If the minister has one ounce of decency left in him, he should resign for signing a contract with Arriva that brought so much chaos in the transport system.

Arriva promised the Maltese a system that would shame the old system. Instead they gave Malta a public transport system worse than that found in Timbuktu. This disaster reinforces the belief of the Maltese voter that this government has lost its direction and that the army is being run by a general who, knowing that he is likely to lose the battle, has decided to scorch and burn anything that could be left to the victor.

Only two or three months before Alfred Sant resigned as Prime Minister in 1998, I prepared a report for him for him as chairman of the Transport Authority. In it I outlined my vision for a complete overhaul of the transport system. With the problems he was facing during the last weeks of his short tenure as Prime Minister, the report never saw the light.

In that report I suggested a National Transport Company should be set up with the owners of the buses and the government as main shareholders, with a chairman appointed by government but accepted by the owners’ association.

I suggested that instead of paying millions to buy the licences of the owners, the value of the bus would be converted into shares. The new company would continue to change the buses and make them customer friendly, embark on a programme of education and continuously strive to improve the service.

The fact is that Transport Malta and Arriva never consulted the former drivers and bus owners. No one knows the system better than they do. Relying on some graduates from the UK who may be good at drawing up reports but know very little about how our bus system works was a big mistake.

Edward Evans

Tourist from Bolton, England

It seems like chaos at the moment but once it settles down it will be better than the old system. I took the bus from Valletta to Sliema yesterday and it was packed like a cattle truck, but I didn’t have to wait for it.

I spoke to one of the Transport Malta officials who had a piece of paper and he knew which bay to go to and when I got there the bus was waiting. So the employees seem to know what they’re doing much more than they did earlier in the week.

The drivers are all immaculately dressed in their new uniforms and it is good for the travelling public to see a driver in uniform. But I would have thought they would have provided more shelter at the Valletta terminal. They should have made the change later in the year rather than bang in the middle of summer and the peak tourist season.

In another month or so I think everything will be ironed out. We have Arriva back home and it is a good company. The buses at home are always on time and the drivers are well turned out.

Alfred Zerafa

Commuter from Senglea

Of course it was better before. Our buses were like taxis before; they would take us virtually to the front door. Now we don’t know where we’re going. They have to bring back the old routes – that’s what the public wants. There is no point having a nice bus if the service is bad. I blame Arriva. They shouldn’t have taken the contract if they didn’t have enough buses. When you take a job, you have to arrive at work with the correct tools.

They had months to plan everything. I have had terrible problems all week and I have been forced to come to Valletta by boat. Valletta is empty; people are staying at home rather than waiting for buses.

They are killing businesses in Valletta and they are killing people’s jobs because they are arriving late for work. Arriva doesn’t know it is happening and it doesn’t care about Malta. It’s not like England here so we don’t need an English system with interchanges. The old service was the best in the world, not even in England would you have a bus waiting to take you home every 10 minutes.

Edgar Vella

Commuter from Birżebbuġa

I have no complaints about the Arriva service. This morning I left the house at 8 a.m. and 17 minutes later I was on a bus. We arrived in Valletta at 9 a.m. but wasted about 20 minutes on the journey because people kept stopping the bus to ask where it was going.

I have used Arriva buses in England and Spain and I know they are well-organised. In time, the system will work well. It’s normal to have some initial problems after changing a system that has been in place for so many years.

I don’t know what it’s like in rush hour if you have to go to work because I’m a pensioner. I pay 50 cents for a day ticket, and I have lots of spare time so I plan to use the system to visit places all over the island that I haven’t seen in years. Even the drivers are very polite, but maybe they need more drivers and more buses.

Eric Bilocca

Commuter from Cospicua

It is good that we changed because the Arriva drivers seem polite and patient. But the problem is poor communication. Today, to get here from Cospicua, I waited four hours and no one could explain why. I accept that they changed the drivers but they should have kept the old network. I’m an easy-going person but for me the lack of communication is frustrating and worse than before.

I expected some confusion for the first few days but not for a week. We were ready for a new system but not new routes. Some of the routes are too complicated and I don’t have much confidence in the system improving unless they change them. I would prefer to take a minibus or taxi but the buses are more affordable so I will have to keep using them.

Emanuel Delia

Head of Transport Minister’s Secretariat

The public expected teething problems but like us was surprised and disappointed at the extent of the difficulty of the transition. A missed bus trip, long waiting times in the sun and confusion about what the route numbers really mean were a fact of daily life in the old set-up and naturally never made the news.

Now, the public and the government hold Arriva by the standards it holds itself in Malta and in the other European cities where it operates. For as long as it falls short of those standards, the public will be intolerant of what it would have readily though unhappily accepted before.

Last Sunday and Monday can be described as chaos. That adjective may be a bit too harsh for subsequent days, though clearly we’re far from where we should be. We have been measuring performance on Valletta-bound routes since Monday. Our sampling on Monday showed services were running at 45 per cent of what they should have been. By Friday, service was up to over 70 per cent of its benchmarks (by the time of reply).

By the contract’s yardstick that’s still poor, but it is clear that at a much slower pace than we would like, progress is being achieved. The public transport service contract was won by the tender from a transport company operating bus systems in 19 European jurisdictions and owned by Deutschebahn – the apex of the European transport business.

If they cannot get it right, who can? As far as delivery is concerned we have every reason to believe this was a freak start and after these unforeseen and in some cases unforeseeable obstacles are overcome we can look forward to the service we deserve.

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