With Arriva claiming success in its efforts to improve reliability and stave off the threat of Transport Malta introducing its own vehicles, managing director Richard Hall tells Patrick Cooke he expects more buses and drivers will be needed to get the whole network up to scratch.
Was the action you took recently to improve the 70s route group an admission that Transport Malta had previously set route demands which were impossible to meet?
The transport reform undertaken by the Government, and it doesn’t matter what their political persuasion was, has been life-changing
The word admission is strong. The first thing to say is this was a totally new transport system designed 18 months to two years ago. I was not involved in that, the team we have heading up the business today was not involved in that. It has become very, very clear to us that there are issues with timing and reliability.
That is apparent from our own monitoring measures and the contact we have with customers. We have undertaken a bottom-up exercise across the whole network to establish good running times and schedules.
What affects Malta more than any other big European cities are the heightened levels of congestion you get at peak periods, usually for a relatively short time. Identifying the need for differing running times at different times of the day is part of restoring reliability.
One of the things you did was employ more buses in this route group at certain times. Did that mean taking buses off other routes?
Not at all. We have a spare percentage of buses in our fleet to cope with engineering and other problems.
Will you need more buses in your fleet if you repeat the exercise you did with the 70s with other route groupings?
We don’t know yet. We are about 10 per cent of the way through the exercise. Currently we are working on the X1 and the regroup of the 40s. If you look at route groups in isolation you identify issues, and that requires an input of additional resources, i.e. buses and drivers.
If you look at the whole network, it gives you the ability to create efficiencies by interworking driving duties and bus duties. While we expect that the whole exercise will require additional resources, that is people and buses, it won’t have as much of an impact as looking at it group on group, because we will generate better scheduling.
It seems that what you did with the 70s was extend journey times and change frequencies. That may be better for Arriva but is it better for customers?
It is interesting how you look at it. The customers require a bus to turn up on time. It is better that it turns up on time rather than five minutes late on a high frequency. If we take, for example, six buses an hour on a 10-minute frequency, and change that to 12 minutes, that requires us to operate five buses an hour, the customer is not impacted and the bus turns up on time so it is a win-win situation.
If you need more buses would the Government contribute funds towards this?
No, it would be funded by us. We already plan to bring over some additional vehicles next year to support the network in the peak tourist season. We have learnt that fluctuation in patronage between summer and winter is massive. We expected that, but I don’t think anyone understands just how big it is. I don’t think anywhere in Europe has the same fluctuation. So we have identified that there is a commercial market for expansion.
Are you concerned about the confusion caused by route changes?
We operate what Transport Malta wants us to operate. The instability in the network in the initial stages caused a huge amount of confusion. Today we have a joined-up, linked network with key bus lines and feeder routes.
We are very focused on minimising changes for the customer. Any other changes, like what we have done on the 70s, are positive and being done in a very measured way, and we have attracted publicity and informed customers and the mayors etc. It is about communication.
So in the end there may be fewer buses on some routes, but customers will be clearly informed of when the buses will arrive and they will arrive on time...
You have summarised it perfectly.
Arriva originally undertook to provide night services throughout the week in summer. Why did that not happen last summer?
We have operated what Transport Malta wants us to. Questions on provision or non-provision of services in that respect should be directed to Transport Malta.
So they changed the conditions?
I would suggest that is the case.
It is also the case that there are no buses from the airport on weeknights after 11pm despite flights landing after this time. Do you have the resources to operate such services?
It would be very easy to extend night-time running in terms of resources because we would just need to extend the working day. We operate what we are required to do in the contract. Commercially, does it make sense to operate buses after a certain time? Probably not. It is about identifying travel patterns. You only do that through time. We are doing a lot of partnership work with Gozo Channel and we are going into partnership with the airport to identify flight schedules.
Do you have enough drivers to meet the demands of the current network?
Pretty much. We are in the best position we have ever been. We are about 30 drivers short of our requirement, which is about three per cent. That is fairly normal for a bus company. Bus workers tend to look for overtime to increase earnings –they often work between 15 and 20 extra hours.
There is a somewhat perverse argument that says if you are fully staffed you lose drivers as they do not see the earning potential. We are in a positive situation now with our driver numbers. We are doing extensive Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) training with Mcast at the moment, which takes about 60 existing drivers per day. We employ today just over 800 drivers.
Drivers have told us they have problems getting their leave approved. Is that the case?
We had a problem in the past – the first half of 2012 and the back half of 2011 – due to staffing numbers. That situation has now been corrected. The normal practice is that drivers’ leave is rostered with a maximum number off per week. They would be given, for example, one week in spring, two weeks in summer, one week in winter, plus statuary holidays. That is a practice we have agreed with the General Workers’ Union (GWU) for next year. Drivers will also be able to swap their rostered leave with each other.
Did you have a problem with absenteeism among drivers in the past?
I think we do have a problem with absenteeism. Service industries tend to have this problem. This is partly down to cultural issues. The Maltese welfare system supports 12 days sick leave, which is an interesting situation that we don’t have in the UK. We have to manage that and deliver the best possible working conditions, and the pay deal we recently negotiated with the GWU was very positive in that respect. It is about making our employees feel good about coming to work.
Do you think the drivers you inherited from the old bus service feel loyalty towards your company?
We have a mix of drivers, including ex-ATP (Public Transport Association) drivers. As I said, our employee engagement focus is massive. If we get our internal communication right we will drive internal performance. That will create a positive impact on what we deliver on the road.
It was revealed in Parliament that Arriva buses have been involved in 1,619 road accidents from July 2011 to October this year. Do you acknowledge that figure is high? Do you blame driving standards of other road users?
Well, without a doubt, driving conditions and standards in Malta are lower than some other countries. The number of accidents is higher than I would like. If I had one accident, that would be too many for me. It is about how we train our drivers initially, and how we rectify problems with remedial training when they do have accidents.
We are looking at how to deliver defensive driving training next year. It is also about perception. We are massive on the island; you can’t go down a street without seeing an Arriva bus. We continue to work with the authorities such as to police on how we can reduce accidents.
Have the accidents impacted your capacity to operate routes?
Normally you would see two or three buses off the road for accident or refurbishment at any time, which is standard in the industry.
Are ex-ATP drivers less careful with Arriva’s buses than they were with their own buses?
I would like to think not. There was massive pride in the old buses. We are trying to ignite that passion in our people. Arriva is customer-centric and employee centric. With the 70s route group we put a route manager in charge who interacts with customers, and we put a group of drivers on these routes, driving the same buses, seeing the same customers every day. About 60 per cent of them are local to that area. It is about building relationships.
Do you have a good relationship with the General Workers Union?
We can’t underestimate the work that has gone into creating a union agreement. We have worked together in absolute partnership to create working and pay terms and conditions. That is all subject to change and we have seen significant changes in 18 months. We want to create sustainable employment together. We have a very positive relationship with the GWU.
What action did you take against the 40 or so drivers who abandoned their routes in October claiming there were discrepancies in their pay?
As you are aware that has happened in the past. We took a very clear decision that day. We spoke to Transport Malta about it. Drivers walking off their routes impact the Maltese people. It would not be acceptable in any other industry. Our customers pay the drivers’ wages. We took the decision to suspend them. A number have now been dismissed, while others faced various disciplinary measures.
It has had a positive outcome for our customers and remaining drivers. I think 37 walked out that day. The 780 who did not were very angry at the others because they want to deliver a good service.
How many were dismissed?
That is confidential.
The Opposition has been critical of the transport reform and your company. Are you concerned about what will happen if they are elected?
Not at all, because we have a 10-year concession.
Could that be affected?
I don’t think so. When any new government comes in there is often a change in direction. That could be in how we discuss things. We will work very closely with any government in place. We have an excellent record of stakeholder management in other European countries.
Before Arriva started operating much was made of the real-time information on buses that would appear at bus stops. This system does not appear to be accurate...
The system is as accurate as it can be at this point. It is an evolving situation. We have been working with the supplier and we now have pretty much instant updates. It was a totally new system.
The public are probably wondering why, after 18 months, is it still not fixed? What the public do not see is the work that has gone into fixing things. We often forget how much progress has been made. We have gone from a bus service that was 30 years behind the rest of Europe to a bus service that is class leading. With the exception of London, there is probably no bus service in Europe that is Euro 5 compliant and has low-floor access.
Will you be introducing more ticketing machines at bus stops to speed up boarding times?
Commercially, does it make sense to operate buses after a certain time? Probably not
There is no plan at the moment. But we have a view that we can improve boarding and journey times if we improve ticketing. We have been discussing ways of doing this with Transport Malta. One way is through smartcards. We are also looking at mobile phone ticketing. It takes a long time to sell change. We have had guys out on the street speaking to customers with a view to introducing some quite radical changes to the ticketing system, because it is not great at the moment.
Have you instructed your drivers to stop checking the ID cards of every passenger to see if they are eligible for a resident’s discount?
We expect them to check everyone. We apply discretion to that rule because if we have a significant queue, our interest is getting people on board. But we are absolutely expecting them to check and validate.
What about the perception that bendy buses are not suitable for Maltese roads?
Articulated buses are used all over Europe. They are proven in shifting large capacities of people quickly. Malta is ideally suited to articulated buses because it has the issue with peak flows. In terms of suitability for the roads, they are more manoeuvrable than a rigid 12-metre bus. They have a better turning circle because they have a shorter axle length in the main bus. The trailing axle just follows the main bus. They are entirely suitable for Maltese roads, but there is a different way of driving them.
If we talk about Maltese roads in general, we have more problems with rigid buses. The key issues are road conditions and parking. In places like the centre of St Julian’s, for the sake of excluding very small numbers of parking bays – we are talking about maybe eight – you would absolutely change how buses would get through that area.
Are you discussing the possibility of removing parking bays with Transport Malta?
My predecessors met with Transport Malta on this about a year ago. We met the minister last week to continue talking about traffic issues and road infrastructure, which are key to us delivering reliability. A really good example of things working well is the reconstruction at Sliema ferries. We worked with Transport Malta to design something fit for purpose. It has a bus lane, bus bays that are the right length, and already we are seeing improvement in reliability on that corridor.
Is it fair to compare Arriva operations here with Arriva operations in the UK?
I don’t think it is today. We know what we are doing; we are a competent service provider. We absolutely expect to deliver here. We already are delivering. The hurdles we have talked about have been significant. The transport reform undertaken by the Government, and it doesn’t matter what their political persuasion was, has been life-changing. It has reduced pollution, it has increased access for disabled people, it has improved quality of life for many people, and it will do so for many years to come. Our aim is to deliver a safe, compliant, reliable service that makes our employees proud of working for us and the Maltese people proud of the transport system. We want to be a class leader, and we will be.
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