Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Maltese Cross to Bear

As we splash & splosh our way through summer (more like autumn), it’s sobering to note that the General Workers’ Union of Malta has instructed its Arriva members *not* to wear uniform neck ties… because of continued very high temperatures there. It’s also worth noting that Transport Malta, a sort of national TfL, is fining tie-less drivers who are in breach of the standard dress code. I’ll comment no further than this because I recall I got myself into hot water when in 2010I referred to short trousers as part of a uniform policy (in England). The very thought this year that shorts are even under consideration, even though this week looks better, at least here in the south…

One consolation in England is the hosepipe bans announced in the spring are no longer required. And our green & pleasant land is generally looking rather lush. But, as unsettled weather continues to feature in the forecasts at least in some parts, expect those areas and those services that rely on seasonal passengers to struggle. It is now, after all, high season. Whether or not passengers then flood (pardon the pun) on to inter-urban services instead, to partake of a little undercover shopping at some city centre mall, the weather’s likely to affect the bottom line this year, in areas where the season’s important.

Back to sunnier climes, though. Has it really been a year since Arriva took over in Malta? Since then, rather like the persistence of English rain, it’s never seemed to be out of the headlines.

Readers will recall a difficult start in the archipelago. The jury’s still not yet out but there have been significant improvements. Read the (plentiful) comments on the Times of Malta’s website over the past year and you get a feeling that passengers are *generally* realising the benefits of Arriva’s service. It ain’t a universal endorsement by any means but the trend is there. They say:
  • The bangers have all gone
  • The drivers are less grumpy than of old
  • Pollution’s lower
  • Frequencies are (generally) better
  • Buses are (generally) more punctual and
  • Air conditioned buses are certainly welcomed.
If you believe all the comments (and, let’s be honest, newspaper sites even of the calibre of the Times of Malta can attract a certain sort) there are still some areas with problems. And there are those in particular who lament the passing of a Maltese heritage, something that attracted tourists.

There does, however, appear to be a three-way tug of war over exactly how people perceive their bus service. The Times of Malta’s own telephone perception survey is damning:  
  • 80 per cent of respondents said they used the old bus service before the 2011 reform, while 50 per cent reported using Arriva now.
  • 20 per cent of respondents said they did *not* use the bus service before the reform, while 50 per cent reported they now do not use the bus.
Ah, but they would say that, wouldn’t they. The Maltese government, the newspaper says, prefers to deal in facts, not perceptions. So, Transport Malta, when it isn’t fining drivers for lapses in uniform standards, says:
  • 17 per cent more passengers were using the bus service in June 2012 (Arriva) compared to June 2011 (pre-Arriva).
  • Eight per cent more passengers were using the bus service between January and June 2012 when compared to the same period in 2011.
On the other hand, Arriva is keeping out of it. It was more cautious, pointing out that it had not issued any of its own figures relating to patronage and therefore “could not comment on such data issued by third parties.” Where, then, does the truth lie?

Recently there came an interesting comment came from a Maltese Green Party spokesman who said, “It is very clear that the system is not coping with the demand.” I read this to mean that buses are full (I may be wrong). And this in spite of a flotilla of bendy buses to help mop up the crowds.

Ah, bendies. Irrespective of their general views, one issue that has hardened the hearts of the Maltese is the use of these articulated buses. They feel that Boris has “dumped” his unwanted artics on the republic. There are concerns that they are unsuitable for the twists and turns of the Maltese streets—in spite of being more manoeuvrable than the new King Longs (or any 12m rigids, really). 

Emulating the hatred that cyclists showed in London where they earned the epithet “cyclist harvesters”, there’s also a strong cycling lobby complaining about bendies. But did anyone ever get “harvested” in London? Don’t think so.

Perhaps the Maltese see themselves as akin to some sort of Scandinavian airport, the place where Boris has always felt the bendies belong.

One thing was as predictable as the Maltese summer weather: it was never going to be easy for Arriva.


Anonymous said...

From personal observation, the loadings are clearly much higher now than in the yellow bus era.

I've no idea how Arriva Malta would cope with the extreme loads if they hadn't got the bendy buses in service.

Anonymous said...

The main problem at the moment appears to be reliability.

Most of Malta's road network is congested and poor quality with indescriminate parking in built up areas which leads to delays. However it is clear that the new buses themselves are not as robust as had been hoped.

If they could build a bit more slack into the system they would probably find that things improve dramatically.

Neil said...

"If they could build a bit more slack into the system they would probably find that things improve dramatically."

True of just about every bus operation everywhere. But profit comes first, so reliability suffers.

If the bus industry introduced the sort of layovers the rail industry tends to have, things would be way better. I reckon about 10 minutes in the hour would be a good start.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Arriva Malta is only working within the tendering arrangements and may not be able to modify things as much as they'd like.

Anonymous said...

"True of just about every bus operation everywhere. But profit comes first, so reliability suffers"

Is it really true? I must've had an exceptional day yesterday when I travelled on 15 vehicles...only the last one of the day (7pm departure) was late curiously.

"If the bus industry introduced the sort of layovers the rail industry tends to have, things would be way better. I reckon about 10 minutes in the hour would be a good start."

And who will pay for this and the amount of resource it will therefore need?

plcd1 said...

@ Anonymous 1142. Yes there would be a cost. However there would most likely be an increase in patronage and revenue if services were reliable and could therefore be depended upon.

It's not a one way street - the more operators hack frequencies about, make timetables more complicated (non clockface peak departures) and cut recovery time then the greater the risk their services are less attractive to existing and potential passengers. I know it is not easy given the traffic conditions that are faced but I do find it odd that peak services are often much worse than off peak ones. It's as if (some) operators have given up on catering for home to work journeys.

Neil said...

"Is it really true?"

I maybe exaggerated. It's certainly common to have 5 minute layovers on a route that is end to end over an hour.

Who pays? Well, that's a hard question. With such layovers, you can run less mileage or have to increase subsidy. But that's true of every quality thing, like the current trend (I actually mistyped that as "Trent" initially!) for "coffee shop" quality interiors. But quality can bring in car users, so actually increased custom might pay.

The Stagecoach 99 MK<->Luton Airport lays over for 10 minutes at Luton Airport, but a massive 55 minutes at MK Central railway station. In reality you often see two there at once when traffic is good. But this is because it's an airport service, and it has to be absolutely punctual as a result, as one missed flight is a passenger that'll never use it again.

So that's one hour and 10 minutes of total layover on a service with a return running time of one hour and 40. Quite a proportion!

AFAIAA it is commercial these days, though I think in the VT99 days it was subsidised by Virgin Trains in some way.



Neil said...

To go further on that point, as it just occurred to me.

A car user uses the bus once in a while. The complaint tends to be "it was late" or "it didn't show up". Normally not "it has slightly boring black seat covers and a lino floor".

Poor punctuality, whatever its cause, is a *massive* disincentive to use the bus. And it only takes one instance of it to put an occasional user off.


Neil said...

"make timetables more complicated (non clockface peak departures)"

The problem with this is that departures *can't* be clockface in the peaks (other than at the outer ends) because running time is longer. And if you use peak running times all day, you either end up sitting around, or more commonly (it seems[1]) drivers run early and leave people behind.

The real solution is for us (probably outside London where the mesh of bus services preclude it) to install more European-style bus priority to ensure running times are consistent all day. But is there the political will?

[1] It was common on MK evening services, but strangely almost completely disappeared when GPS tracking came in. Odd, that...


Anonymous said...

"plcd1 said... Yes there would be a cost. However there would most likely be an increase in patronage and revenue if services were reliable and could therefore be depended upon."

It may have some benefit but will it really generate sufficient revenue to outweigh the cost. I'd warrant costs would go up by c.10-20% but would be surprised if revenue would increase by anything close to that.

Patronage growth is not built around reliability; that is a given but if it's unreliable, then patronage falls. Not really a two way street. Growth comes from getting the product right (not just reliability but also the right fares and serving the right route at the right frequency), and then marketing it correctly. It's a complex mix.

Nonetheless, research does suggest that service reliability is the single most important consideration in any service. It is a fine line to tread for any firm, not helped by localised and short term problems such as illegal parking and TTLs that can destroy reliability. Therefore, it's fine one day and disastrous the next!

Anonymous said...

The consultants for the Malta overhaul were Halcrow. So that's the second island they cocked things up in (after Jersey ten years ago)

Anonymous said...

I was one of the UK drivers who was lucky enough to get sent out there last year. Transport Malta were basing their usage stats on ticket machine receipts and these are woefully inaccurate as, and ask any Maltese, most of the old drivers were fiddling left, right and centre. That's not to say they're not doing it now they have to wear Arriva uniform!

viewfromthesouth said...

The much-trumpeted King Longs in Malta are of poor quality and will require significant nursing to get them through the 10 year contract. The Chinese have a long way to go in meeting European aspirations on build quality. But then again, are there any UK manufacturers that can build a bus which doesn't rattle from new? Nope, thought not.

David said...

@ viewfromthesouth:


Wright can manage it, just about, more often than not. But the less we say about the build quality at Alexander Dennis the better.

Anonymous said...

David said: "But the less we say about the build quality at Alexander Dennis the better."

Oh, there's nothing like a big, sweeping generalisation, is there? Nothing to do with the fact that Sir Brian is a major shareholder, I hope?

I travel regularly on recent ADL vehicles and I've not noticed rattles.

viewfromthesouth said...

@ David

Try a Streetlite DF!