23 July 2003

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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 it’s 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 yesterday’s performance, I would say it was a good start for the eventual full introduction of the system for everybody concerned.
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.
We’ve 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 the system.
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 a conclusion.
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 installations?
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 Malta’s 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 don’t lose it. So there is a limited possibility for sales.
Yesterday’s 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 have regularised.
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 Malta’s 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. Let’s do that first and then government will be prepared to discuss anything, even increasing the number of new buses to be subsidised. But let’s 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 Malta’s 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, it’s 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 subsidies.
It’s not just a question of whether it’s right or wrong to have an underground system, it’s 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.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
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