Overhauling public transport as
we know it
Transport Minister Censu Galea speaks to David Lindsay
about the recently introduced bus ticketing system and its data collecting
function, the future revamping of public transport as we know it and
suggested alternatives to buses for transporting the public
In a nutshell, what are the benefits of the increased
use of public transport?
If one speaks about the general subject, the very first and most obvious
benefit would be the reduction of cars on the road, those using a private
car to reach one destination from another in a much easier way. This
is one immediately visible result.
The other, and perhaps more important, benefit is the fact that without
us even realising most of the time, our cars pollute as much as the
larger vehicles do. The implication of having fewer cars on the roads
is that our environment, particularly in terms of air pollution, will
be greatly enhanced and consequently we will be living in a cleaner
environment with fewer respiratory problems.
With this in mind, the two most direct influences on our daily life
are: the environmental impact, which should be positive with an increased
number of people using public transport, while those still using private
cars will be in a better position to flow from one place to another.
How would you gauge the general acceptance and the smoothness of the
new ticketing system so far?
Up to a certain extent its too early to judge the acceptance,
being still day two. In reality the reactions I have personally had
from various quarters, were that the general situation was a very positive
one in the sense that even those people who were still unaware of the
development, even after eight years of discussion, are welcoming it.
The general reaction was positive and one can start looking forward
to the day when there will be much less contact with the driver. In
this way there is a perception of having a better service from the moment
that you step onto the bus since this is the moment at which
the service really starts for the people using the bus service.
I have to admit as well that, generally speaking, most of the bus drivers
yesterday had a positive reaction to the ticketing machines introduction.
If I were to judge yesterdays performance, I would say it was
a good start for the eventual full introduction of the system for everybody
Prior to the introduction of the ticketing system there was a great
deal of reluctance on the part of the bus drivers. Have these outstanding
issues been resolved?
No, in reality not all pending issues have been resolved, because what
we are trying to do this time around is to not merely solve one problem
that crops up at a particular point.
Weve had a lot of information collected over the past years and
a lot of feedback from various quarters, particularly from local councils
in this respect, about the need to change particular routes, certain
directions from which buses pass and the way the service was being delivered
by the Public Transport Association.
This time around discussions will definitely not be concentrating simply
on whether fares should be increased or if ticket machines should be
introduced, but instead on what we are calling a general overhaul of
With this in mind we have prepared a number of options that I would
not like to divulge for risk of prejudicing agreements that are still
under discussion. But if agreements are reached on a number of proposals,
one of the basic differences will be a move away from the way things
stand at the moment with our transport system leading commuters
to Valletta and out of Valletta to other destinations.
We would like to see a situation in which, rather than having one major
hub in Valletta and a smaller one in Bugibba, we would like to have
five or six major hubs from where major routes originate to various
destinations, in this way reaching different parts of villages not necessarily
from Valletta. This will be a big change when, hopefully, it comes to
As far as the night service is concerned, we had already gone through
lengthy discussions prior to the elections about the possibility of
having one of these termini located in Paceville, which is, as we all
know, the biggest centre for nightlife.
On this point, we already have a basic agreement and understanding with
the Association in that Paceville will become the night service terminus,
from where one can reach practically all destinations from 7 p.m. to
4, 5 a.m. If people start using the service, that will be another major
change in the way commuters are served.
One common complaint we heard yesterday (Monday) was that there were
not enough ticket vending machines installed. Are there plans for further
This was a complaint we received yesterday and it was valid to a certain
extent. Eight machines are not enough, especially on the first day.
But on the other hand, one has to realise that as far as machines are
concerned, once you buy a bus card that card is yours for life and you
can top up that card on the bus itself or at the machines. As such,
it is not a case of just having eight places where the card can be topped
up, but you also have all Maltas buses. We intend to have a couple
more machines around the Paola area, another area where a good number
of buses pass through.
Having said that, we are also considering the possibility of having
sales points at different places. Overseas, everyone knows you can buy
bus tickets from various establishments that are not necessarily transport-connected.
In the same way, we can, here in Malta, buy a mobile phone top up card
from a great number of outlets and we intend to introduce buying bus
cards from certain stationers and similar shops. Of course, consumption
will not be as high as in the mobile card example as you can actually
use the one card forever if you dont lose it. So there is a limited
possibility for sales.
Yesterdays situation resulted from a concentration of people trying
to buy these cards on the very first day. Perhaps today we will see
the same congestion, but within three or four weeks the situation will
But for a first day I believe the reaction was positive and even though
there were complaints, these are only natural at the end of the day.
What about the issue of subsidies for new buses, should we expect the
number of new buses to be subsidised to increase in the future?
The number of people who agreed to make use of the subsidy way back
in 1995 was 147. However, another point we are in discussions over is
whether we really need the current 508 buses that currently comprise
Maltas bus fleet. Another point under discussion is whether or
not we need buses of the same dimensions, of 45 seats. I believe that
one of the biggest changes in the future will be eventually the introduction
of smaller buses.
There are certain villages in which it is, first and foremost, physically
impossible for buses to pass through. Smaller buses would mean easier
access to villages such as Attard, Balzan and Lija, which are very irregularly
served simply because buses cannot pass through their narrow streets
and as such smaller buses could possibly serve some of these areas much
better than they area being served at the moment.
Other villages such as Qrendi, Safi and Mqabba - which are small in
themselves and with smaller passenger volumes - could be served by smaller
buses, perhaps coupled with better frequencies, could change the idea
of how the entire public is being served by the bus service.
As we have always said, for the time being I am insisting on getting
these 147 buses into operation first. This agreement started being put
in place eight years ago and after eight years these 147 buses have
not yet all been put into service. Lets do that first and then
government will be prepared to discuss anything, even increasing the
number of new buses to be subsidised. But lets concentrate on
the 147 first, of which some 35 are on the road at the moment. Almost
all the rest are on order from different places and we expect some 100
to be on the road by the end of the year.
This change has be tackled one step at a time and discussions about
increasing these numbers will begin only after the whole exercise of
the initial 147 has been finalised.
How self-sustaining is Maltas public transport system?
The Malta Transport Authority, with the Planning Authority, recently
carried out surveys on the frequency of use by different commuters and
other topics and it was very obvious from the information collected
that there are some routes that are not only self-sustaining, but are
profitable in their own right.
But on the other hand there are certain destinations where the service
could never be profitable, but people in these areas have a right to
have a public transport service.
The idea is to analyse where and when bus routes are needed. However,
once the government imposes on the Association the need to have a bus
route to a particular destination that is not profitable in itself,
then subsidies could and are allowed to be triggered to keep the route
going. One cannot possibly consider imposing a non-sustainable route
and then hope the owners would just suffer the losses.
One must keep in mind, on the other hand, that we can enhance the more
profitable destinations as well, and there is room for improvement even
here. One could say, for example, that Sliema is well served, which
it is up to a certain extent. But do you really need to continue using
the same number of buses every day of the week for all destinations,
or can you take certain buses from one route and use them for another
route on certain days? Sliema is one such example, the service runs
at five minute intervals, but if you need a service of three minute
intervals during summer, its useless simply saying that it leaves
every five minutes and that should be good enough. There are days, or
months, in which that interval needs to be increased.
There are certain villages from which there is practically no one commuting,
do we need to impose a 20 minute interval when five or six buses in
a row leave empty?
One very important point here about the ticketing machines, is that
apart from reducing contact with the drivers, real information is being
collected from the machines such as how many passengers, from where,
from which areas and from which bus stops people are getting on the
buses from. That information will be collected and will be used to determine
a redistribution of the whole network.
Another point here is that 254 buses, half the fleet, are in service
each day. There are days when you need many more, and there are days
in which you need less. But this is not an assumption to be arrived
at by the Ministry or the Authority or the bus drivers - this has to
come as a result of real statistical data.
One big change will occur when the Mater Dei Hospital opens. The area
at the moment, if you exclude University students, is not heavily frequented
by commuters. But when the new hospital opens, many thousands will be
going there every day as employees, patients, outpatients and visitors.
We have to begin thinking from now about how public transport will be
reaching the area, which needs to be serviced very well, in the coming
years. Having the hospital so close to the University, with 8,000 students,
there is the distinct need to improve the service to the whole area,
including the Industrial Estate just two minutes up the road. These
are all possibilities that need to be looked into.
We keep hearing about different types of public transport being suggested
for Malta, such as boat and underground links to various areas. What
is the viability of such systems?
Let me distinguish between the types of services that have been proposed.
The current ferry service from Sliema to Valletta, for example, is serving
only part of its route. Originally speaking, the agreement between the
government and the operator said it would run from Sliema to Valletta
and from Valletta to the Three Cites. The second part of that route
was never put in place. We have had discussions over the last months
with a view to determining how this latter part of the service could
be made effective but so far we have not reached an agreement.
As far as this particular service is concerned, I am not totally pleased
by the service being given for the simple reason that people using it
end up, in both places, in a location from where they have to walk due
to the fact that there are no connections in to central Valletta or
Sliema. If we really want to improve the service we need to ensure that
at the moment people arrive there is a service that takes them to the
city centres. If we do not improve on that part of the service, it will
continue to be a tourist attraction and will not used by Maltese - as
it is now.
On underground and tram systems, I have been on record saying they would
not work here. I do not say this simply for the sake of being against
a proposal, I am aware of the expenditure involved in trying to set
up a functioning underground system. Infrastructural expenses would
perhaps run into the hundreds of millions. The other problem would be
from where to where it would run. Some ask, Why not Sliema to
Valletta and one can argue that it would somehow function, but
at what expense? If you want to maintain a system, it has to be paid
for and ensuing high ticket prices to cover the cost would prove unfeasible.
The other thing is that, say people are prepared to pay some Lm5 for
Sliema to Valletta, what would happen to the existing public transport
system? The Sliema route is one of the profitable routes and the implication
of having a good underground system there would be ruining the public
transport system at the end of the day it would mean having many more
unprofitable routes than we have at the moment leading to further
Its not just a question of whether its right or wrong to
have an underground system, its a question of jeopardising an
entire system. With this in mind, I have always been against the proposal.
There is always the temptation to discuss one single item and one item
on its own could lead you to a particular solution. However, you have
to look at the bigger picture as a whole.