In reforming the country’s public transportation system, Transport Minister Joe Mizzi has a huge challenge ahead of him, particularly given the fact that the Arriva debacle had contributed in no insignificant way to the downfall of the previous administration, but he is taking that challenge in his stride.
In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Mr Mizzi, who is imminently due to publish a call for Expressions of Interest for an operator to fill Arriva’s shoes, confirms that a Public Private Partnership is very much a possibility, stressing that the government intends to give all those interested a chance irrespective of who they are or whether the company is Maltese or foreign.
Irish and Scottish companies and the local Unscheduled Bus Service (UBS) approached the ministry for meetings. Paramount is, so far, not one of the companies that expressed interest in holding discussions with the ministry. The government has met those who have requested meetings and explained to them that the Expression of Interest will be issued, when this will be out and how long it will be open for
But whatever the case, the overriding aim is to create a more efficient, commuter-friendly public transport system.
Asked whether he sees the possibility that the new public transport operator would be a new Arriva, and possibly suffer the same fate, Mr Mizzi said that the government will be passing on the findings from assessments carried out over the past months, and the lessons learnt, to the new operator so that it will be able to anticipate potential flies in the ointment as much as possible and to be in a position to solve problems as they crop up.
The government, he pledged, will be doing its best to ensure smooth operations, while being clear and realistic from day one of the talks so that no one has unachievable expectations. Knowing this will not be an easy task, he shied away from giving an assurance that the system won’t fail again.
“We are doing our best to ensure the best outcome, but I cannot forecast what will happen tomorrow,” he said.
Transport Malta’s role as regulator will remain unchanged when the new operator comes in. A government company has taken over Arriva’s shares and assets and meanwhile, officials with experience from Transport Malta are currently operating the service. He did not exclude the possibility that these officials will continue giving their service when the new operator comes in.
New routes, uploaded on the Transport Malta website this week, were based on the public’s needs and the comments to the authorities and the media. Following consultations, including with local councils, the routes were fine-tuned and the government went to Arriva with them.
However, the company was not in a position to continue operating and although the new routes had been finalised in October, it would have been useless to have them published at the time.
Now that the expression of interest is on the brink of being published, the public is being given the opportunity to see the routes since it will not be able to see the details of the expression of interest. Routes will serve as the basis for the expression of interest and discussions with the new operator.
He pointed out that people need to check the routes and not just where the bus will depart from and its destination. The routes will be explained in detail in the coming weeks and meanwhile he assured that the transport system-using public’s needs have been seen to.
Asked whether the main problem was that buses did not connect towns and villages directly with Valletta, Mr Mizzi explained the issue was that buses were not picking people up or were not following schedules and would arrive late.
While the new company will have to decide on the number of new buses needed to operate the new routes, he pointed out that at least 70 new buses are needed to fit into the new routes made public earlier this week.
Nor can the new routes be introduced as soon as the new operator takes the wheel as the new buses would still need to be purchased, a process that takes a number of months. As soon as the new operator takes over, the company will be bound to gradually introduce the new routes. The intention is to introduce the changes as soon as possible keeping in mind efficiency, the schedules, covering all areas, and affordability.
He noted that the Expression of Interest will be out by tomorrow (Sunday). Although he intended for it to have been to be published within a week of the government’s parting of ways with Arriva, experts needed a longer time to take into consideration all legal and technical provisions especially because this is not something that only Maltese companies will be eligible for.
Mr Mizzi clarified that the new operator will be in well before the end of the year but he did not give any time frames as to when the new operator would take over.
However, he insisted that the Expression of Interest needs to be adjudicated within the shortest time possible, although slightly over a month will be given to those interested in submitting their proposals. The Arriva stickers are slowly being removed.
Taking into consideration that the public has not yet understood the new routes, he explained that interchanges will no longer be necessary. In fact, these do not feature in the new routes, he said. These interchanges, he explains, were one of the issues that had dissuaded people from using public transportation.
Nonetheless, subsidies must continue being given to the incoming operator since the social aspect of the service is of the utmost importance. Ultimately, he says, it must be ensured that subsidies result in value for money. So far, there was no benefit from the millions spent to date on reforming the system, and chaos resulted.
Discussing the Arriva agreement tabled on Monday in Parliament, Mr Mizzi explained that the government has not absorbed any of Arriva’s debts but has taken over €7.9 million in credit. Arriva Malta’s possible liquidation would have meant “we would have ended up with no buses and with all employees being made redundant,” Mr Mizzi said.
“During the period of the discussions that took place, operations needed to continue and diesel needed to be purchased. The amount the government will be covering is the cost for the operations and services to continue. When you take into consideration that it was a lose-lose situation, and that the government paid €1 for all Arriva’s assets, it is a positive thing after all.
“We had nothing to hide, so much so that for the first time, the whole agreement, including the financial documents, was published,” he said. “This shows we operated in the most transparent and responsible manner while results were achieved.”
The way forward is by focusing on efficiency, he emphasised. Money has started to be saved, better quality parts that last longer are being used when maintenance is carried out and the complaints he receives have dropped drastically from hundreds daily to around three.
Despite the fact that the government and Transport Malta are doing their utmost to ensure the smooth running of the service, including by means of more enforcement officers, there is more to be done. One of the problems is that if a bus breaks down, there are no buses to replace it so a bus needs to be taken off another route to continue the service. Another issue was that when buses ran out of diesel say at 11am, they would have to go to Qormi for refuelling and would, in the meantime, miss three routes.
“This is unacceptable and the solution is for fuel tanks to be added to the network, which is possible. Measures are also being taken to ensure that no time is wasted when it comes to refuelling.”
Operational expenses are also being lowered. The Arriva agreement stipulated that three top management officials would remain in Malta for a three-month hand over period and the government would cover this cost. The expense to cover the salaries of top officials was around €1 million a year; this has been brought down to around €400,000, and Maltese officials are replacing foreigners when possible.
All Arriva’s branding, including the colour of the buses, needs to change within a year and the agreement stipulated that uniforms were to be changed within a month from the agreement – which came into effect on 2 January. Mr Mizzi however explained changes will not be immediate but the physical changes will be discussed with the new operator which will provide the new uniform and decide the colours.
Asked whether the buses will remain the same or whether vehicles running on gas will be introduced, Mr Mizzi replied: “I want buses to be much better while keeping in mind costs and sustainability. Buses must definitely be Euro V and I am all for more environmentally friendly vehicles.
“Standards will not be lowered and the old buses will certainly not be re-introduced,” he said.
Discussing ticket prices, he pointed out that according to the Arriva agreement, the tariffs were to go up in May. The basis for the new operation is the existent tariffs and subsidies will continue to be given to continue the social aspect and to make sure tariffs can be afforded by all.
“There is a lot of space for improvement in the ticketing system,” he said. “Ideally tickets will no longer be bought from buses, and systems by which people buy discounted long-term tickets electronically should be implemented.”
He also believes that while it should always be possible for people to buy one-way tickets, the fares should be higher. Then there’s the efficiency scenario that has to be kept in mind: if people stop buying tickets from buses, less time is wasted on bus stops.
The government is assessing all possibilities of public transport systems and others to ease traffic congestion he said. Ferries are working although the service can be extended much more. Feasibility studies also need to be carried out for these and other systems including the monorail and for a bridge between Triq Belt il-Hazna and Corradino.
Over the past 10 months, Mr Mizzi adds, several electoral pledges have started to be delivered and destructive criticism from the Opposition, like saying that vehicles passing from near the Marsa Shipbuilding are not covered by insurance, which was untrue, did not help the situation as concerns the public.
Even when it was unacceptable to keep bendy buses on the roads because of safety reasons, the Opposition gave the impression things were otherwise.
In the end, the proof that the public transportation system has met the public’s expectations will be when they start using it more – resulting in less traffic congestion, less pollution and a better environment.
Roads, he said, also have to be improved as they cannot cater for the increasing traffic and along such lines short, medium and long term projects are being planned. Among these is that for the Marsa and Kappara junctions. A new project will soon be announced for near the Lija cemetery, where a bottle neck exists and while plans are in hand, more details will be announced in the coming days when Mepa applications are filed.