22 November 2006

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Radical transport plan unveiled in parliament

James Debono

A study proposing a radical overhaul of the public transport system, proposing the reduction of the bus fleet from the current 508 to a sheer 196, and the introduction of competition between rival bidders for nine bus routes, has finally seen the light of the day after being tabled in parliament by Transport Minister Jesmond Mugliett last week.
The report prepared by UK-based Halcrow Group Limited had been finalised in November 2005 but was kept away from public scrutiny for the past year. Halcrow were commissioned by the Malta Transport Authority to propose a new service agreement with public transport operators and to evaluate feasible options for the regulation of the public transport market.
The report notes that car ownership in Malta is the fourth highest in European Union and that patronage of buses has declined from 42 million passengers in 1989 to 31 million in 2005. 508 plated vehicles owned by approximately 440 individuals currently provide bus service. Buses operate on alternate days resulting in a very low utilisation rate.
The report calculates that with 508 buses on average, a Malta bus is on a day on the road for just 50 per cent of the time, about seven hours out of a typical 14-15 hour day. Considering the day-off, day-on arrangements, the new low floor buses, mainly by government grants, are in use for 25 per cent of available hours. This appears to represent poor use of government funds says the report.
Only 21 of the present routes are considered profitable. Some routes are particularly poorly patronised with subsidies per passenger trip of Lm4. The recently introduced university services is performing poorly recovering only 5 to 15 per cent of costs.
The report is very clear of the current division of roles between the Transport Authority (ADT) and the Public Transport Association (ATP). It states that it is unclear whether the ATP or the ADT is responsible for the network. The ADT have full access to all the route data from the ticketing system as do the ATP. But neither party has all the information it needs to develop the network.
According to the damning report the ADT has abrogated responsibility for service planning and it has not addressed the issue of passenger information. The ADT should require operators or the ATP to maintain and make available full public timetable information and passenger information.
On the other hand the ATP is performing the role of operator without being accountable for its service.
At present the ATP acts in part as a union of operators whilst at the same time it acts as an operator by excreting functions such as vehicle scheduling and financial control.
“The present modus operandi has the disadvantage that the ATP does not have the accountability that an operator normally has for the actions of his employees.”
What is completely lacking from the system is a comprehensive timetable against which the day-to day operations can be compared, meaning that it is difficult to monitor whether all journeys were made.
The report warns that maintenance costs are bound to rise as the new low floor buses get older. These amount to 28 per cent of the bus fleet. Whilst maintenance costs will be low in the early years of life of new buses, the costs will rapidly escalate to above those of older less complex buses.
“This is a serious issue looming as the cost base of the fleet is going to rise very dramatically and the current system does not seem to be able to deal with the owner of a King Long or a Volvo who suffers a major engine failure,” the report claims.
The report also observes that 145 dispatchers and inspectors are currently employed - a ratio of one dispatcher or inspector for every 3 buses on the road.
“In a typical EU situation, there may be a total of 6-10 people performing these roles,” the report states. It warns that if no changes to the regulatory regime are made passenger numbers will continue to decline and the average age of the bus fleet will once again increase. This would lead to increases in car use, which will continue to erode patronage and result in congestion. It also warns that fare increases above the inflation rate or an increase in government subsidy will be necessary. The only alternative to this will be a substantial cut in service that is currently offered.
By subsidising public transport the government has guaranteed a sure wage to operators. Therefore bus owners have little incentive to increase their revenue and thus reduce government subsidy.
Halcrow exclude the complete liberalisation of public transport through the adoption of an open market model as this would inevitably lead to a concentration on prime time services and major routes and the exclusion of less profitable ones. Halcrow propose a tendering system through which groups of bus owners would bid for net cost contracts covering nine different routes.
But such a system would be incompatible with the status quo and the current number of licensed buses as any form of contracting with operators would require a coming together of individual operators in formal grouping.
The report proposed that the new bus fleet will be comprised of the 142 available low floor buses and 56 non-low floor buses. To achieve this aim the report encourages the sharing of each bus between 2 owners.
The reduction in the number of buses is aimed at increasing the daily utilisation of each from the current 7.5 hours on alternate days to 10 hours every day. The report claims that the reduction in the bus fleet would enable operators to operate without the need of over-all subsidies “although there would be a need for internal cross subsidy between elements of the network.”
The contract between the ADT and operators will envision a system of penalties and sanctions to ensure that operator abide to their obligations. In the new situation the ADT’s role would retain its present function of regulating driver licensing and standards. But it would also assume responsibility for establishing the specifications for route group contracts, administer the tender process, analyse rival bids and recommend the award of contracts. It would also have to ensure that passenger information at bus stops, termini, buses and on the Internet are available.
But the reform will practically eradicate the bus drivers’ association role as an operator. “The ATP will almost certainly feel threatened by the new arrangements and this could lead to unjustified resistance to change,” the report warns. The new role for the ADT will be that of providing common services to all route groups like administrating lost property as well as providing engineering services to operators through purchasing fuel and spare parts in bulk. It would also be responsible for inspectors, marketing and publicity.
Halcrow also said the smartcard system has fallen out of use. One of the shortcomings of pre paid tickets is that it takes more time to validate the card than to deal with cash fares. The absence of nationwide sale outlets for these tickets is considered another shortcoming.
The report proposes the introduction of transfer tickets, which would allow passengers to board two buses in the space of an hour for the price of one. In order to attract more commuters, the report proposes the introduction of monthly tickets calculated on the basis of two trips per day for a three-week period.

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