Malta launches a new public transit system

Arriva Malta
A new bus, operated by Arriva Malta boards passengers at the new terminal in Valletta (Originally published by the Times of Malta).

While Malta was famous for its old fleet of yellow-and-orange buses servicing the public transport needs of the entire island by operating out of a central node in Malta’s capital city, I wholeheartedly welcomed the announcement of a new system with a modern fleet of buses. Nostalgia aside, Malta’s old buses were in need of replacement; they had no air conditioning, were heavy polluters, and were independently owned and operated by their drivers. Many Maltese would cringe at the thought of riding one of the old buses during the hot summer months when the buses were stuffed with sweaty passengers, let alone driving behind one of the dilapitated buses as they would expel a rather deadly concoction of fumes and smoke as they lumbered up a hill.

Malta’s new transit system was delivered in collaboration with Transport Malta, the local infrastructure planning and maintenance body, along with Arriva, a British public transit operator that runs public transit systems across Europe, which has recently been acquired by DeutschBahn (DB).

Malta was very well informed leading up to the launch of Arriva Malta’s service on July 3, 2011, and the general public was hopeful of new changes, better service, and air conditioned buses, however the actual turn of events no doubt sent a chill up the spines of upper management and became the largest front-page news item for the subsequent three weeks.

A classic Maltese bus (xarabank).

At 5:15am on July 3, 2011, Arriva Malta’s first buses were scheduled to roll out of Arriva’s bus yard, however that was made difficult by the fact that approximately 180 bus drivers, most of whom were drivers from the previous system, did not show up for work. It was touted as an act of sabotage by Malta’s former bus drivers who were unhappy with their new working conditions, and on Arriva’s first day of service, it instigated a complete disaster. Hundreds of unhappy passengers were seen stranded at bus stops and under the strong Maltese sun, tempers flew as passengers fought their way onto the reduced fleet of operational buses. The second day of service was no different from the first as around 60 bus  drivers still refused to show up for work, however Arriva was able to leverage their size by importing over 100 bus drivers from the UK to take over and get their buses on the road. For the drivers that did show up to work, they still managed to help sabotage the system by making unauthorized breaks mid-route, and even going out of service and parking their buses at home when they were supposed to be on duty.

When I arrived on the island on July 9, the buses were out, but not without problems:

  • Operating frequencies were not consistent, and buses operating on the same route were bunching up, to the point where I once saw seven buses servicing the same route running one after the other.
  • Bus capacity was not sufficient on most bus routes. It was quite often that buses would begin skipping stops as they were full of passengers, often stranding passengers for over an hour.
  • Some mainline bus routes are too long and make loops around every village that they pass which make certain routes unnecessarily long.
  • Some routes utilize roads that are simply not feasible for buses, either because of their poor condition or because they’re too narrow to accomodate the turning radius of a bus: this is especially true for some of the smaller villages like Gharghur.

By the time I was leaving, however, the operations had improved significantly. Buses were arriving more regularly, electronic display signs were in use with audio alerts for stops along the route, and revisions had already been made to several of the routes based on passenger feedback and analysis. Another major revision is scheduled for the beginning of September, which will hopefully resolve any major issues before the start of school. While most Maltese still grumble about the change, I am optimistic that the system will serve the island well and will continue to improve as time goes on.

For more updates on Arriva Malta’s service, visit their website.

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