The man seen by many as the driving force behind the public transport reform has accused some former Public Transport Association (ATP) bus drivers of attempting to sabotage Arriva’s operations so they can take over the bus system again.
Emanuel Delia, head of the Transport Minister’s Secretariat and Austin Gatt’s right-hand man, told The Sunday Times that “conspiracy theorists could have a field day” when analysing the behaviour in recent weeks of some of the former ATP drivers contracted to Arriva.
According to Mr Delia, Arriva began to express grave concern in the last two weeks of the preparation period that former ATP drivers who had committed to work on the new service were quitting in their dozens.
In the days before operations began last Sunday, Mr Delia said Arriva was fast losing its cushion of spare drivers and by last Sunday the number of drivers was at the minimum level required.
Every day since then, Arriva reported that more drivers – almost all of them from the old system – failed to turn up for work without explanation
“Arriva cannot be blamed for this. Most of the ex-ATP drivers have disappeared,” Mr Delia said.
“Some others are still there and doing a great job. Some others are playing up, sometimes dragging their feet, sometimes vanishing when on duty, sometimes reporting faults in buses which are later found to be fine but only after more services are cancelled,” he added.
Arriva has so far been unprepared for the level of enforcement and discipline it needs to run a tight ship, according to Mr Delia.
“It has used its standard formulae of operations that it uses anywhere else, assuming people who work for it would want to do so,” he said, pointing out that many of its employees do and their enthusiasm in the face of last week’s adversities was admirable.
“Among those adversities is bullying from ex-ATP drivers who tell them outright that they’re on a plan to scupper the Arriva project so they can take over the business again,” Mr Delia said.
He added that Arriva did not seem prepared for this sort of attitude but it is now getting to grips with the situation and beefing up its supervisory and control mechanisms with experienced personnel flown over especially from the UK.
“Arriva hopes, as we do, that this starts having an effect on delivery soon,” he said.
On the first day of operations last Sunday, many drivers contributed to the chaotic service by refusing to work, citing the split-shifts they had been asked to work at short notice as being unacceptable and not part of the working conditions they had agreed to.
Mr Delia described Arriva’s roster and changeover structure for drivers as “complex” but said such practices were standard in modern public transport operations worldwide and required flexibility and adaptability from employees.
“We understand these are being simplified at higher cost to Arriva until the service is stable enough for more training to be given to drivers and greater flexibility ensured.
“The shortest way to that target is filling up as quickly as possible its driver complement and weeding out trouble-makers if they are still there,” Mr Delia said.
In a statement yesterday, Arriva Malta managing director Keith Bastow said the company had been hit hard by up to 180 drivers who failed to report for duty last week, more than half of whom were drivers from the former regime.
More than 40 support staff, supervisors and management have been drafted from around the Arriva group to support the Malta team, along with more than 70 temporary drivers from the UK. By today, more than 50 British drivers will be on the road, with a further 20 drivers entering service early next week.
Mr Bastow said these drivers have received training on the specific routes they will be working on. Fifty-four Maltese drivers are currently in training and Arriva is continuing its recruitment drive in Malta.
“To address issues with services in more remote areas with lower passenger numbers, with the consent of Transport Malta, Arriva are temporarily sub-contracting some of the feeder routes. Vehicles on these routes will clearly display an Arriva logo and route number,” Mr Bastow added.
DELIA: SURPRISED AND DISAPPOINTED
Asked how severe was the damage caused this week to the the public perception of the Arriva Malta service, Mr Delia said the public expected teething problems but, like, like him, it was surprised and disappointed at the extent of the difficulty of the transition.
"The higher one's expectations, and ours were high, the greater one's disappointment is likely to be."
"A missed bus trip, long waiting times in the sun and confusion about what the route numbers really mean, were a fact of daily life in the old set-up and naturally never made the news. There was no air-conditioning on the old buses to complain about if it broke down or if it blew too cold. We took for granted the shabby look of drivers and buses and we rightly hoped for a change.
"Now the public and the Government hold Arriva by the standards it holds itself in Malta and in the many other cities around Europe it operates. And for as long as it falls short of those standards the public will be intolerant now of what it would readily though unhappily accept before.
"Arriva was chosen because of its global credentials in this business and because it won the competition for the least cost to taxpayers. It has yet to win the competition for customer support.
"I cannot say how damaging this first week has been. I can say that the Maltese public would like nothing better than for Arriva to succeed because it is primarily to the public's benefit if it does. The sooner Arriva gets its house in order, the quicker we can find out if the public will hop on board out of choice, not merely out of necessity."
Asked when commuters can expect the service they were promised, Mr Delia said the Government and Transport Malta expect delivery of the service in full yesterday.
"We meet Arriva every day and most nights and our resources are fully deployed supporting them and where we can clearing hurdles out of their way. But our commitment at this stage can only be limited to using all the tools available to us contractually and legally to firstly spur the operator to normalise services as quickly as possible and failing that take appropriate action to live up to our public commitment of making sure people can move around and arrive at their destination in reasonable time.
"The public transport service contract was won by the tender from a transport company of international repute, operating bus systems in nineteen different European jurisdiction and owned by Deutschebahn – the apex of the European transport business. We could hardly have aimed for or got more as far as quality is concerned. If they cannot get it right, who can?
"So, as far as delivery is concerned we have every reason to believe that this was a freak start and after these unforeseen and in some cases unforeseeable obstacles are overcome we can look forward to the service we deserve."
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