The Maltese buses and the bus system deserve their own blog post. And today we are having a slow day sitting in Cafe Bocconcino and drinking coffee, so why not. Besides it’s too hot to do anything. Planned trip to Gozo tomorrow might be cancelled due to forecast 38 degrees.
We bought a seven day bus pass when we arrived which gives you unlimited use of the buses anywhere in Malta. At €12 each, they are good value if you’re using the buses everyday like we are. And of course it saves the hassle of finding €0.49 every time you get on.
But this is the new Maltese bus system. The “changeover” only occurred on 3 July last year. I can remember so vividly the old yellow buses, decorated inside and out, each one having a personality of their own. The drivers were so unnecessarily grumpy, but somehow that added to their charm.
The “central bus terminal” is just a gigantic roundabout outside the city gates in Valletta. When we came to Malta in 2003 the old buses simply parked in reasonably random order around the roundabout. If it was 35 degrees in Malta, it would be 45 at the bus terminal due to the fact there were 30 or so vintage buses (some of which were 60 years old) idling in that confined area. Not to mention the fumes. Cousin Adam reckons the old buses were probably single handedly responsible for global warming.
I’ve done some reading on the old buses. They were run on a unique owner-operator system, much like taxis in Britain. The drivers bought – and in many cases, built, or inherited from their fathers – their own buses. They alone were responsible for running and maintaining them. At night, they parked them outside their houses and, in some cases, actually inside them.
The average Maltese bus was 35 years old. Many had been around for 50 or even 60 years.
After World War II, enterprising Maltese men purchased old British Army vehicles, stripped them to the chassis and welded hand-made bus bodies on top. They had hand painted slogans on the back. Some of the good ones: “Speed of Light”, “Reliance”, “You’re my own time lover” and “Living dreams”.
I found an article in the Malta Times published on the eve of the changeover. Ray Cassar was over 55 and had accepted voluntary retirement rather than taking up a job with Arriva, the new operator. Ray had been a bus driver practically since he was 5 years old as he used to accompany his father on the bus (where he was “sometimes allowed to drive which was fine as long as he didn’t crash”). He described his 1962 Bedford bus as “the story of his life”. He had just garaged his bus knowing that next time he drove it would be to its grave (although he quietly hoped he could have the exhaust cleaned so it could be used for the tourists). Ray was finishing his career as a bus driver and was going to open a snack bar where his income would be uncertain. He used to earn about €350 a week driving the bus and enjoyed the certainty of income.
Cut to the present
From what I’ve read, the changeover was a nightmare. On day one, 70 of the old drivers didn’t show up for work leaving the bus system in total chaos. 55 drivers from Britain had to be shipped in by Arriva to fill the empty driving seats. The British drivers were only supposed to be here temporarily, but it seems that many are still here.
There was no winning for Arriva. They had assumed that the drivers they had employed would turn up for work. Not so in Malta where the old drivers still wanted to save the old system where they had a monopoly. Arriva had rolled out 250 brand new buses with air conditioning. When the air conditioning didn’t work they were abused (everyone forgetting that the old buses had no air conditioning at all). They also completely changed the route system and the layout of the bus roundabout. All this in July – when temperatures soar and so do tempers.
Arriva accused the old drivers of trying to sabotage the new system so they could get the old system back. Even when the old drivers turned up for work, there were reports of them deviating substantially off course and either going home or parking their bendy buses by a kiosk for a break and leaving passengers stranded at the bus stops. The bus drivers didn’t know the new buses had GPS tracking their every move. The drivers said the GPS systems were faulty.
A spokesman for the drivers’ union said it wasn’t sabotage: “I don’t view this as organised sabotage. I see this as normal human behaviour in a situation where you have a complex system that is initially quite chaotic and if there are opportunities for people who can do less work than they’re supposed to, a few will do so,” the spokesman said, adding this behaviour was not unique to Maltese bus drivers.
Some students created a card game of the old Maltese bus drivers where you trade the cards depicting different drivers. The drivers are ranked on ferocity, speed, punctuality, loudness, courtesy and decoration.
Our experience of the new system has been mostly good. On the cramped bus ride to Marsaxlokk, Joe the bus driver struck up a conversation with Em and enjoyed hearing about NZ and commenting on the temperature.
But we have also been on buses where the driver is intent on breaking the land-speed record for bendy buses on Malta’s potholed roads. The bus shudders and the noise would seem to suggest the bus is about to break in half. Remember that these buses are usually full – they can accommodate 150 passengers. The back breaking shuddering seems to further encourage the bus driver. Maybe if they can destroy the new buses they can get the old ones back?
Of course it was necessary that Malta refreshed its public transport system. But it is sad that there was no place for the old buses other than the museums. The old buses summed up (and added to) the quirkiness of Malta. Adored for their character, but highly impractical in this day and age. Either way, the change was an end of an era for Malta.