Friday, 18 May 2012

Arriva...Almost One Year Later

Arriva started operating in Malta on the 03/07/2011. In spite of the many promises about how good the new public transport service would be prior to the aforementioned date, the service still leaves much to be desired almost one year later. This article is intended to expose the many faults that still exist when it comes to the new, more expensive service. It also proposes a solution that would grossly benefit the country.

At the time of writing, notwithstanding the boasting about the modern technology utilised by the new buses, one can still witness several buses showing one route number on the side, another number on the front (this sometimes consists of a piece of paper stuck to the screen!), and another number on the back!!! This obviously leads to a great deal of confusion and wasted time as several people are obliged to ask the driver to confirm the correct route number.

The promised modern technology has also failed to materialise when it comes to the displays located in a number of locations whereby passengers should be able to know how much time is left before the next bus comes along. I have seen such systems work in countries far bigger than Malta. It is indeed baffling to imagine what could be so difficult to make this system work! At the moment, when one looks at these displays, two things normally happen: there is either a message saying something along the lines of "Test in Progress" or else if there is a bus route together with an expected arrival time, no bus usually shows up at the announced time.    

Prior to the launch of the new service, a lot of attention was given to the fact that the new buses would have AC. Although this promise was welcomed by the vast majority of regular commuters, there are still many times when the AC fails to work. Considering that the bus doors are kept closed, one can only imagine what that feels like during lunchtime on a typical Maltese summer day! On many occasions, the AC is switched on, but the temperature is either too high or too low. 

As far as the buses themselves are concerned, virtually all of them were apparently made of relatively cheap materials. I have travelled on several buses whereby one or more of the poles to hold onto whilst standing had been pulled out from their place and were patched up with tape. The passages are not particularly wide, making it rather cumbersome for someone travelling with a fairly large bag. The breaking system has also been commented on by numerous individuals. More specifically, almost every time a driver hits the breaks, practically all the passengers are jerked forward and this has sometimes led to people falling or getting hurt. Scared of the sporadic breaking habits of many drivers, there is a tendency for countless passengers to stand close to the front area of the bus when they get on board. This leads to a situation whereby there is a massive crowd blocking the main entrance area of the bus and hardly any passengers in the central and rear parts of the bus. 

Turning to the regularity of the buses, it was obvious that there was insufficient planning when talking about the buses going from Valletta to St Julian's and to Bugibba. More specifically, routes 12 and 13 had become notorious for several passengers. These buses would often leave Valletta completely packed making it virtually impossible for new passengers to get on board by the time the buses got to Msida or Sliema. In Valletta itself, one could frequently witness huge crowds of people waiting to get onto these buses. Fights were also sometimes reported between individuals trying to get on board. Whilst going through Sliema, especially during the busy tourist season, it has often been possible to see crowds of up to 15 people waiting for one bus after another as most of the buses cannot accommodate anyone as a result of leaving Valletta totally packed! Such a situation is deeply distressing to both the locals and to the thousands of tourists who visit Sliema and St Julian's every year.

Talking about busy routes, the notion of buying tickets directly from the driver was also a huge mistake. When a bus stops in Sliema and there are around 10 people waiting on the stage, it can take fairly long for the bus to resume its journey when almost every passenger wants to buy the ticket from the driver or when several passengers just get on to ask the driver about how to get to a specific place. In order for the public transport service to be as efficient as possible, there should be as little contact as possible with the driver. More specifically, all bus tickets should be purchased beforehand from ticket machines or from a group of designated shops scattered across the country to ensure that everyone can buy the ticket prior to boarding the bus.

What about the drivers themselves? Although the general behaviour of most drivers has improved very much compared to the old system, there are numerous occasions when one wonders about the amount of training given to them on how to use the bus or on a specific route that has to be followed. Indeed, there were many times when drivers were unable to switch bus numbers when they had to change from one route to another. Others had no idea on how to increase or decrease the temperature of the AC. Still others had to ask passengers about how to get from one place to another.

As a Communist who believes in projects that truly benefit the masses, I think that the points mentioned above are sufficient to show that whoever is staying in Malta deserves a much better public transport service. Am I suggesting a return to the old service? Definitely not! 

I believe that the service should be nationalised after a certain number of years during which the government could learn as much as possible to allow it to take the service from the hands of the private sector. Malta could endure Arriva for, say, another 5 or 10 years. During that time, the government could make all the necessary arrangements to set up the Malta Public Transport Corporation. The latter would provide stable jobs to the drivers, ensuring that they have proper areas where they are protected from the elements. Measures would be taken to ensure that busy routes are supplied with very regular buses to avoid the current situation whereby many buses leave Valletta packed. The government would subsidise certain expenses of the company so that the tickets are affordable to all.  The night service would also be improved so that there are more regular buses going to various towns and villages without charging a higher fare to the passengers.The routes would be planned following extensive consultation with the people.

Most importantly, given that the service would be managed by the Maltese government on behalf of the Maltese people, any profits would be invested in the community. There would be more money to build more health centres around the country. There would be more money to improve and, if necessary, construct more educational centres.