The Malta Independent 25 May 2024, Saturday
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Watch: Malta Public Transport spends €14m a year on buses’ preventative maintenance

Friday, 12 April 2024, 15:25 Last update: about 2 months ago

Words: Semira Abbas Shalan; Video: Sabrina Zammit

The costs of preventative and corrective maintenance on its 460-bus fleet, which includes parts, material, fluids, and personnel wages, has averaged at around €14 million per year in the last four years, Malta Public Transport General Manager Konrad Pulé said, with the company feeling “confident” that all the buses it operates are safe.

The Malta Independent was invited by MPT to join the team at the company’s Luqa maintenance facility and was shown various tests to counter the recent “serious” allegations made against the company.


A judicial protest was filed last Tuesday by Claudio Cutajar, a workshop supervisor at MPT, who accused his employer of ignoring his concerns and attempting to force him to allow dangerous and unroadworthy buses to continue in circulation.

As part of the judicial protest, Cutajar filed photographs of damaged parts, repair logs and WhatsApp chats with his superior. He states that the current situation is putting bus users and the public in general in danger.

Speaking to The Malta Independent, Pulé said that MPT felt the obligation, as a public transport operator, to clarify, “in a transparent and clear way,” that there is “no risk on our public buses.”

"We felt that it was very important to clarify things," Pulé said. He explained that the company, forming part of an international group, is imposed with very high standards from that same group.

“We cannot risk that our buses are not safe,” Pulé said.

Explaining the internal procedures, protocols, and systems, Pulé said that these are designed in a way which does not allow room for abuse or pressure upon the company's supervisors, and maintenance records as well as due and ongoing repairs of every bus were thoroughly logged and dated in the company’s online system.

He said that this same procedure is used in other countries where the company operates, such as Spain and Cyprus.

Records are also cross-checked by different individuals, from mechanics, and inspectors to supervisors, making it “very difficult” for checks and balances to be bypassed, Pulé said.

The "driver defect sheet" must also be completed by the driver before commencing his first trip of the day to ensure that everything is in order, he added. If there are certain damages, such as dents on the bus, the driver must mark it for the next handover, and the bus is then scheduled for repairs.

There were 11 buses mentioned in the judicial protest, which were immediately removed from active service upon further inspections, as ordered by Transport Malta, Pulé said.

Two of them were already in one of MPT's maintenance garages undergoing maintenance and repairs. One of the two buses was a training bus, Pulé added.

The other nine are currently undergoing inspections by TM, with Pulé saying that he was "confident" that the results would "speak for themselves."

As part of the routine inspections, each bus in the fleet is brought in for a thorough inspection every 35 days, Pulé explained, even if there were no issues identified.

Each night, 18 buses are called for inspections, and Pulé said that the company has a KPI, and 99.7%, buses are inspected either that same day, or up to 3 days, as standardly allowed.

He said that undoubtedly, there are things the public transport operator can improve when it comes to public buses, naming route delays as one, however, the question of road safety is taken "very seriously," and the team is very passionate on this.

"We do many things to promote, as much as possible, safety and quality. We are ISO certified, and it is in our interest to be preventative and safe," Pule said, mentioning the Safety Committee established within the company since 2015, as well as recognition of drivers at the Drivers’ Awards.

Pule said that MPT’s standards are even higher than that established at law.

"We will never put our employees in danger on our own buses. Nor will we ever put the public, our families, ourselves, other road users in danger," Pule insisted.


Judicial protest evidence was ‘misinterpreted’ and ‘taken out of context’

Asked if they had seen the judicial protest coming, Pulé said that they were completely taken by surprise that morning, as they had not been presented with the judicial protest themselves, having first heard about it in the media.

"Had someone alleged something internally, we would have gotten into it, discussed with the person, and if need be, we change procedure," Pule said, reiterating that there is no compromise on safety.

He said that the company has focus groups, as well as issues surveys every few months to receive feedback on procedures. "We have a lot of mechanisms, internally, for the employee to come to us, and we are a very big organisation, with 1,400 employees," Pulé said.

Before he filed the judicial protest, Cutajar was informed of disciplinary action which started in March of this year for breaching an internal procedure, Pulé said.

Among the photos exhibited in the judicial protest were blurred photos of public buses, but more notably, one piece of evidence offered up in the judicial protest was a sheet which listed the mechanical faults identified in a single bus.

This sheet was "incomplete," Pulé said, adding that list was photographed in the middle of the process, after an inspector had checked the bus, but before it had been attended to by a mechanic, making it appear as though repairs were not carried out.

In fact, Pulé showed The Malta Independent the complete document, showing several names of mechanics who had signed off the repairs which had been carried out.

"A photo of the paper was exhibited before it went through the whole process, which we believe was very unfair," Pulé said.

He addressed another allegation mentioned in the judicial protest, that some buses had brake pads so worn that their effectiveness was at less than 30%. Thus was misinterpreted and taken out of context, he said.

He said that a brake pad has a lifetime of 30,000 to 35,000 kilometres, and the wear-and-tear of the brake pad can be calculated.

“This 30% is fine. It means that from 30,000km, you still have 30% left, which means it is usable," Pule said, explaining the misunderstanding.

He added that the company has its internal protocols and knows at which point it needs to change the brake pads.

What's more, the dashboard lights will alert the driver if it has 2,000km left, and will mean that he can drive a further 1,000km, and the brake pads would not have fully worn out yet.

"The brakes will not work at 40%. They will work fully. It is important to understand this," Pule said.

Pulé showed a photo showing a mobile phone, which is used in rotation by several MPT supervisors, showing the WhatsApp chats exhibited as evidence in the judicial protest, which showed exchanges between Cutajar, and manager Joe Grixti. Pulé said that this was also taken out of context.

He said that if something is critically wrong, the bus cannot go out on active service. He explained that the messages have been interpreted in a way where the employee in question was being asked to send buses which needed heavy repairs out for service, when this was not the case.

"There's nothing in these chats, which says; "send an unsafe bus out"," Pule said, adding that it was unfortunate that it has been interpreted in a way which implies that the buses were unsafe.

Commercial Director Daniel Grech joined in to explain that it was also ultimately the employee's responsibility to check whether the buses were safe or not. He added that the employee was given a job and was responsible for it.

"If they feel that the buses were unsafe, then he should not send them out," he said, adding that nobody was being forced.


Turnover of employees has remained stable

From the engineering side, Group Technical Director Hector Astorga also categorically denied allegations mentioned in the judicial protest that he had called a staff meeting in which he explained that the company was going through a financially tough period, and told them, without mincing his words that if things did not improve, he would have to ‘pull down the shutters’ and fire them.

Astorga said that he has high expectations, and the department cannot be managed without having strict policies in place; however, he denied threatening to lay off people.

On the allegation that many employees left the company following that meeting, Pulé and Astorga said that this was not the case, and the turnover of the department is stable and looked at on a monthly basis.

Exit interviews are also carried out by the HR department, for more checks and balances, he said. The turnover has been quoted out of context, as the employees who did leave had plans to leave the country, Astorga clarified.

Pulé also said that the allegation that the company was going through a tough period was also false, having invested around €20 million last year, in a huge electrification project.

While touring around the maintenance facility, Astorga explained the process of the inspections being carried out. He showed and explained the workings of the brake test, which is part of the test for a bus.

Astorga said that there are around 30 to 40 buses which are over and above the company’s requirement, to be used in case there is an accident, or the bus has to be immediately replaced.

The teams work Monday to Friday in the evening, which is why around 16 to 18 buses are called for inspection each day.

On electric buses, Astorga explained that there is a deal in place with the manufacturer for MPT employees to carry out inspections with them, to continue to learn more about electric vehicles.

He said that the quality of the repair carried out on older buses, as compared to the new ones, is the same in standards, yet different in procedure.

Astorga said that more or less, a bus needs its body to be “rebuilt” after around 10 years, and repairs on the gearboxes as well as the engine depends more on the inspections.

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