Take stock and make the system work

The Times of Malta, Friday, July 22, 2011 , by Ralph Cassar

Take stock and make the system work

Granted, new systems, including a public transport system, will take time to get used to. Yes, more involvement by local councils might have led to some improvements here and there and, indeed, some mayors did not even bother to put the issue of public transport on the agenda.

Transport Malta, however, is notorious for its cavalier attitude towards consultation and its chronic failures in traffic management together with its arrogant attitude towards local councils.

We must not fall into the trap that the Transport Ministry hopes we will fall into: shifting the blame on others when it is only the ministry that had full control and a supposedly holistic view of the new transport system. Nobody else could and should have done the ministry’s work other than highlighting relatively minor issues such as proposing that a certain bus passes through a certain area. Then again, already long and never-ending routes might have ended up even longer.

The crux of the matter is what the Transport Minister and the government wanted to achieve when they engaged the services of foreign consultants to draw up the new routes. It is blatantly obvious now that the terms of reference were to cut the number of routes to reduce the subsidies that every public transport system needs to be viable. Indeed, on more than one occasion, Transport Minister Austin Gatt spoke of the new system costing the government less. In the process, whole areas in Malta have found themselves with routes that are long, time-consuming and inefficient.

The people who have contacted me and other Alternattiva Demokratika officials come from all over the island: from Żabbar, Żejtun, Marsascala, the three cities, Swieqi, Attard and Żebbuġ, just to mention a few. It is taking ages to get from Swieqi to the University. The 106 bus from Attard takes an hour to get to Birkirkara from where people are supposed to change buses to Valletta. People from the southern part of Malta who used to get a direct bus to Mater Dei Hospital are finding themselves on never-ending journeys to get to their destination. Popular links from Cottonera to car-magnet Marsascala have been discontinued.

We have held back from commenting too quickly. Of course, there were and are teething troubles and maybe sabotage from some quarters. Yes, some direct routes are as efficient and as fast as anything, with courteous drivers and comfortable buses. The fact that hundreds upon hundreds of old, polluting and downright dangerous vehicles have been taken off the road is very positive.

Now Dr Gatt has to be humble enough to tackle the routes issue, unless he wants to risk this reform meaning more cars on the road instead of less. Dr Gatt has said that a new transport system will cost less but offer a better service. Of course, it was hard to contradict him. Now, however, it looks like less public investment means longer routes, which, maybe on paper, look good but have now been proven to be unwieldy.

There was no way to check the routes beforehand except through trial runs, which, it seems, were not done. Car-clogged areas, such as near the University and Mater Dei, need fast direct links to as many places as possible if the aim is to reduce cars and the waste of land being used just for parking at the University. The same applies for Sliema and Marsascala; the fewer the cars the more space for pedestrians and the less congestion and pollution.

On Arriva’s part, the ticketing system must be rethought. Why are drivers still burdened with selling tickets and giving out change? This is also meaning longer travelling times.

Public transport is an investment, which pays back in less traffic, an improvement in public spaces and less pollution. I hope that no stone is left unturned to do what needs to be done to meet the high expectations of the public. Swallowing one’s pride and changing things for the better is not dishonourable. Persisting and insisting that all is right is not on.

The author is Alternattiva Demokratika’s secretary general and spokesman on energy, industry and transport.