News | Sunday, 07 December 2008

Back to the routes

When in the 1930s, the Maltese chose the use of public buses over trains and horse-drawn carriages, coachmen diversified and the Malta Railway Company shut down. 75 years down the line, Malta saw a sharp decline in bus usage as many are choosing private cars over an unreliable, often rowdy bus service. With so many cars around, few people bar car importers stand to benefit. British experts are now calling on government to bring back the railway. Could it work? David Darmanin reports

When it comes to managing public transport, Malta is one tough nut to crack. We may be as small as a medium sized metropolitan area, but this does not mean that we may at all copy and paste to Malta public transport mechanisms used in cities abroad.
For starters, despite the country’s smallness, the road network and urban layout is such that certain villages may still be classified as remote, notwithstanding their physical proximity to central areas. Witness to this is the amount of EU funds invested in projects aimed at integrating remote and insulated areas to the centre of the island. For instance, a Dingli youth group had a few years ago partnered up in an EU-financed project, with a Swedish counterpart hailing from some god forsaken hamlet located a few hundred miles off centre. A conference had taken place between the two organisations with the aim of identifying common challenges faced by youths living in remote locations. Surprisingly, it transpired that because of remoteness, the problems they shared proved to be very similar.
Besides, Malta has now made a tradition out of allowing public transport operators to own their own vehicles. “I know of no country on this planet where bus drivers own their own trucks and take them home after the end of their shift,” said Transport Minister Austin Gatt after Friday’s confrontation with operators at the National Conference on Malta Public Transport. Turning to David Simmons and Roger Childs, UK Public Transport Consultants from Halcrow, Gatt asked: “Am I right? This setup is not even adopted in Zimbabwe.” Both consultants nodded their heads in a “Yes Minister” fashion.
Clearly, the system presents a management nightmare in terms of accountability, control measures, vehicle maintenance, and worst of all – customer relations. Bus drivers are now very much accustomed to this system, and the mention of a reform suggesting the loss of their independence will be met with severe resistance. It is not said however, that they are capable of forming a united front – and this is very much because of the same independence they have been enjoying for so many years.
While Brussels exerts pressure and tourism operators lobby for the improvement of the Maltese product, government has recognised that standards must be raised. Gatt should hardly be worried about the opinion of public transport operators since it is not realistic to expect that the latter group will be supported by the public. They haven’t yet been forgiven for their dismal public relations tactics at the public transport strike held in the beginning of summer. But surprisingly, Gatt is as worried as he is determined to get this reform done. When asked whether he should be preoccupied about bus drivers’ resistance, he said: “If I find nobody to dialogue with, yes there could be a problem. But we need to get this done.”
The Halcrow consultants, who over the past weeks have a had a hard time in Malta trying to come up with an effective public transport solution for Malta, are saying that if we are to implement an effective reform – we must go back to the roots.
Before the introduction of Malta’s train and railway system, at a time when nobody had a car, Malta relied on public transport. At that time, the general wellbeing of the population depended on a proper public transport system. If we are not happy with buses nowadays, we use a car. Back then the only alternative was going on foot or not moving at all.
Before the era of buses, commuters connected to central areas by making use of one or several cabbies owned by coachmen residing close by. As small towns developed into busier centres, and the need of more efficient connectivity was identified, a privately owned railway system was created. This was 1883, two years before the first postage stamps were issued on the island. Commuters started using a system whereby horse-drawn carriages transported them to train stations, and there, they could interconnect to a railway route anywhere between the stretch leading to Valletta from Rabat. Because of shorter routes, slow carriages were made more available to an increasing number of villagers wanting quicker and more frequent access to towns.
In the present day, Malta faces the challenge of a poor bus system and an expensive taxi service. This situation may have contributed to a dramatic increase of people choosing private vehicles as their reliable transport method of choice. There are clear downsides to this. Beyond the environmental impact, congestion and parking have become a nightmare to anyone wanting to get to their office on time. Because of less demand on buses, night time routes seem not to be enough in demand for a service that is extended beyond the St Julian’s-Valletta route. This, among other things, has led to many more tourists opting for a rented car, which further increases congestion and limits parking – not to mention the impact it has on the island’s tourism product.
These days are over. Halcrow have recommended the introduction of two new tram routes – one between Valletta and St Julian’s and the other between Ta’ Qali and Valletta via Birikirkara. A total of 14 trams would operate on both routes – with the first trip starting at 06:00 and the last at midnight. The Ta’ Qali-Valletta route has been calculated to last as little as 21 minutes per trip, while the Sliema one, 15 minutes.
The consultants are also pushing for a radical reform in bus service, with a new and smaller fleet of different-sized vehicles – all owned by a single company. Valletta would cease operating as a hub where almost every bus route ends. New priority measures for public transport would be introduced and drivers would be assigned specific routes so as to get accustomed to a regular customer base. Standards on vehicles shall improve. Every truck must be Euro 3 complaint in its emissions and onboard comfort and special needs facilities would be made available.
Fantastic. But we still haven’t worked out how much money commuters would have to fork out to make use of this new and improved setup. All we know is that it will have to be more expensive than the current bus fare. “When we raised Gozo ferry fares for the Maltese and lowered them for the Gozitans, there was a significant increase in the use of the service,” Gatt argued. “This is because a balanced system was put in place, and yes, service has also generally improved.”
But at best, regular commuters to Gozo from Malta would top the once-a-week frequency, whereas we are expecting a big chunk of the population to make use of public transport on a daily basis. If not cheaper, the system must be significantly more convenient than private car use. While Gatt seems to back the introduction of new rules to give priority to public transport – thus disincentivising car usage, he still seems to be quite sceptical on the introduction of a tram.
“Let’s not hurry on this idea,” he stated. A tram system would require an initial capital of anywhere between €205,000,000 and €325,000,000. It will take an estimation of €7.2 million per annum to run, as electricity and maintenance overheads are expected to be hefty. Ultimately, this means that trams would have to commute some 5,000 passengers a day for the operation to be feasible. Not impossible, but we first need to look into the fare cost.
Ultimately, could a public transport system ever work without government aid? The answer is no, but Gatt reassures that with adequate systems in place, a government call for expressions of interest has potential to attract a number of investors.
“Just like in any other country, as a government, we cannot avoid subsidising unpopular routes, the disabled, students and the third-aged. With proper systems in place, yes I cannot see why a public transport system should fail to be profitable for private operators,” he said.
Back to the past. With the onset of public buses and an increase in privately owned vehicles, the Malta Railway Company ceased to operate in the early 1930s. Up until the 1970s, buses seemed to enjoy a certain degree of success. But with a drop of more than 50 per cent in the number of bus passengers since then, something needs to be done to control car congestion and to offer a better product to tourists. The question is no longer whether bus drivers will accept the reform or less. It is much rather whether Malta is ready for a culture change. Granted, the offer of an alternative to car use is not just about price – it is also a matter of convenience and efficiency. But ultimately, the price factor will play a crucial role in determining the acceptance of such new systems in Malta.

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