Following years of hype, expectations are sky high. But are our transport needs being met?
Take the new bus system... its birth was indeed followed by a baptism of fire. What we experienced in the past days revealed Arriva’s ‘teething problems’ after days in a boiling pot of confusion. Arriva officials were frequently quoted by the press as saying that everything was in place and everything was running “on time”. It now transpired that most of those statements amounted to a PR exercise and they now need to make a greater effort to restore public trust.
It is a pity that the image of the smiling driver on the billboard was brutally shattered by mutinous men flaunting their anger on the evening news. Their insubordination did not merely cost those drivers their job; but they are also possibly blamed for everything else that went wrong.
Long-suffering commuters had great expectations but their experience has now been marred by long waits under a scorching sun for vehicles that did not turn up; trips between short distances that became longer and more time-consuming. Hundreds reported late for work and important appointments. Moreover, there is a feeling that Arriva’s public awareness campaign did not effectively reach all segments. Many cannot decide whether they are failing to understand the new operation or if it is the system that is failing them.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating and Arriva needs to put its act together quickly if it wishes to bring the anticipated culture change. Meaningful reform happens when more of us are willing to switch from private transport to an efficient public system. We will remain reluctant to do so as long as we do not have the reassurance that in the age of mobility we will not remain stranded.
Narrower roads and stomach ulcers
Talk of transportation is not restricted to buses. In the street people, are frustrated with the sheer lack of traffic management and the silly decisions that are stubbornly being taken. For instance, most of us cannot fathom the motives behind decisions to narrow down decently sized streets, to one-lane roads. These so called “traffic calming measures” instigate road rage and set off stomach ulcers. You must know the feeling whenever you are unable to overtake a slow karozzin or a heavy long vehicle. Moreover, one keeps wondering what happens if our car accidentally stops in a one lane road, say the arterial road that links Naxxar to San Gwann. Things will only get worse. Just look at the current road works; publicity leaflets boast of narrower roads, but much wider and nicer pavements, in various parts of the island.
Politicians on both side of the House are allured by one underground sexy project. It is the grand vision of a tunnel that connects Malta and Gozo. Opposed by environmentalists and those who wish to preserve the romantic picture postcard image of Gozo; it has become the favourite dream of islanders who wish to reduce the double insularity that is deemed to block the sister island’s advancement.
Inter-island transportation has been on the national agenda for decades but we still have not laid out a long-term plan. In the early 1970s, government had commissioned a feasibility study which determined that an inter-island bridge was not a good idea. Since then we have seen the birth and demise of various helicopter services now replaced by a seaplane that still complements the ferry.
What politicians are now proposing is a tunnel vision spiced by polarized vote-catching tactics. The tunnel debate was recently revamped in an article by prospective Labour Gozitan candidate Franco Mercieca and then by Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi while he was touring the island. We shall not be surprised if it ends up in the list of electoral promises of both parties. Commentators are happily chattering about its exorbitant cost and feasibility. Newspapers reported it will cost at least €150 million but level-headed entrepreneurs and expert geologists immediately warned that the cost could even double, depending on the geological structure.
While we are happily dabbling with tunnel issues we are forgetting that in 2004 Gozo Channel was given an exclusive contract to operate a ferry service between the islands with an annual subsidy of €3.5 million. That subsidy was justified because of the ferry’s “public service obligation” but soon the European Commission insisted that the ferry should be subject to competitive market forces. The Maltese government faced music before the European Court of Justice as the Commission insisted competition is essential even when it acknowledged that such a small-scale ferry system hardly permits a profitable service run by a single operator.
Very soon state subsidies have to stop and government is already in the process of issuing a public call for tenders. In the meantime the ‘new’ ferry ships are no longer that new and for over three years we have been reading that they are showing clear signs of “fatigue”. Tunnel vision is now diverting our focus from these urgent issues.
Instead of fantasizing on costly tunnels, people need immediate measures and reassurances that the lifeline between the islands will keep running.
‘Ghasfur tac-comb ma jtirx’
Talking about lifelines... for decades Air Malta’s “leaded birds” connected the islands to strategic destinations and the airline was a source of national pride and an intrinsic part of brand Malta. The context in which airlines operate has changed and unless the company adapts it will not survive. But there is one fact that has not changed. In the age of mobility, it is strategically important that Malta secures its lifeline with the rest of the world. While Air Malta needs to shed some baggage and learn how to survive in a competitive scenario on a level playing field, as an island state we cannot put ourselves at the mercy and mood of Low Cost operators.
All these issues point towards one reality: Malta desperately needs to develop a holistic plan to improve its internal and external mobility.