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The public transport reform

A year after the public transport reform, the Times is inviting people to submit their views on the reform. James Debono has also written a very interesting blog-post on the subject, and I share most of his sentiments. I am here sharing also my personal experience in using this service.

I have used public transport daily for work for around two months while our local council was discussing improvements with Transport Malta, so that I could be in a better position to understand the residents' complaints and propose any possible improvements.

The situation in Gudja, where I live, was in fact quite problematic up to a few months ago. Residents had to either walk to the Malta International Airport, crossing a very dangerous arterial road (where Transport Malta have now promised to install pelican lights by early 2013), or wait for an hourly bus which passed through Gudja on the way to the airport. While not much of a problem for those who are able to walk a few minutes (since links from the airport to any part of Malta are then very good), it was not so easy for the elderly, especially since we no longer had a direct link to the Paola Health Centre. After discussion with officials from Transport Malta, the direct link to Valletta was re-established through route X5, and that to Paola through route X7.

In the weeks following this change, save for the occasional glitch, there was not much I could complain about. My journey to work involved two buses: X5 from my nearest stage to Blata l-Bajda, followed by any bus from 51-55 to Birkirkara. X5 was always at my closest stage between 1 minute earlier to 6 minutes later than its scheduled time, and after no more than a 10-minute wait at Blata l-Bajda for the next bus, I used to be at my place of work in not more than 50 minutes. This was almost the time the old buses used to take for a direct journey from Gudja to Valletta, so that was definitely an improvement.

Though this was still more than the 30-minute drive it used to take me by car in the winter morning traffic, I found it more convenient to spend 50 relaxed minutes reading, than spending 30 minutes raging in traffic.

Apart from work, I also used it for other errands and trips. The longest journey I tried was from Santa Venera, Malta to Xaghra, Gozo, which took just 2 hours including the ferry trip. Not very much longer than it would have taken by car, and with the lower expense of avoiding to pay for the car's ferry trip. I also have to say that both Malta and Gozo buses were synchronized with the ferry schedule to clockwork precision.

Overall, in my opinion the positives are definitely:
  • the buses: cleaner, safer, more comfortable and more accessible;
  • the drivers: polite and well-mannered, I even tested one with a €20 note and he actually apologized for having to give me change in small coins;
  • the fare: much cheaper for those who use it regularly, and way cheaper than fuel;
  • the larger number of possible connections and interchanges, not just Valletta.
Some suggestions for improvements would be:
  • Not having tickets sold by drivers on buses anymore. This is the biggest variable in journey time: the driver issuing tickets and giving out change on bus stops. I tried the Arriva Saver Card, which is very similar to the London Oyster card, and it's very easy to top-up and use. For those who are not technology-friendly, tickets should maybe be made more accessible by having them sold in local kiosks and stationers;
  • Pocket-booklets showing time-tables, bus-stops and connections should be made available for the public. I understand that this might not have happened by now due to the continuous changes in routes, but once the network is stable, this should be a must. Until one gets used to the routes and timetables, planning to find your best option for a trip is quite an exercise which has to be done beforehand. It is also a fact that many people don't have the time or the will to check for any better connection available than the one they were used to;
  • A re-definition of the peak and off-peak hours in the contract, on which the frequency of some routes depends. Currently, I believe peak hours are defined to be between 7am and 7pm. Considering the time at which the majority of people go out for work or for other errands, I'd say peak hours should include earlier hours, maybe at the expense of some time in the afternoon.
Of course, I can only speak about the particular routes and areas I traveled to, so in no way am I saying that the picture is rosy all over the island. The signs are very positive though, and with some tweaking I trust the service can keep on improving. What I can definitely say is that given the overall picture, the situation today is much better than what it was with the old system a year ago. And at a reduced public expenditure of €3.5 million less in subsidies.

From my experience, I can say that after a few weeks I had found the system to be trustworthy and punctual enough to use it to attend for my exams. And I still use it whenever I don't have a million things at different locations to attend to in the evening. Compared to driving, it is safer, more relaxing, less time-wasting, and more environment-friendly.

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