The new bus service was introduced with high expectations two weeks ago, followed by bitter disappointment. Keith Bastow, managing director of Arriva Malta, tells Patrick Cooke how his company had prepared itself, and what has happened since.

Do you blame the 180 or so drivers who failed to turn up for work for the difficult start to Arriva’s operations?

Without a doubt the biggest single significant issue has been the driving staff. Over the past six months we had over 6,000 applications and did 50,000 hours of training and – as we were contractually committed to do – we signed up 320 drivers of the previous Public Transport Association (ATP) regime.

To end up where we are is obviously extremely disappointing. Quite frankly I’m not sure we could have done anything else other than what we have done.

Emanuel Delia (head of Transport Secretariat) suggested former ATP drivers may have planned to sabotage the Arriva service.

I don’t know. In the two or three weeks before there were lots and lots of rumours but I tend to ignore them. I had heard very different rumours. It was really a case of wait and see. You have to remember that all the drivers who failed to show from the ATP staff had all signed and entered into contracts of employment with us back in March or April.

When did you start becoming concerned that drivers wouldn’t show up?

I suppose it was 10 days before. We had an initial number who said they weren’t coming in and we were aware of that. That wasn’t the issue. We flagged it with Transport Malta but felt we still had enough cover at that stage. We tried to establish whether it was a trend or not, but initially it wasn’t.

A big issue arose with some drivers refusing to work split-shifts. Why were they only informed of these shifts days before operations started?

We aren’t in a normal situation. If we were a company that was established and ongoing, everyone would be aware long before that. Resource planning comes towards the end of the network planning process. We started to employ staff directly as soon as we could.

With ATP drivers we had the dilemma that ATP had a contract to keep staff and service until midnight on July 2. We tried to be as flexible as we could with training. With schedules, as far as I was concerned, the duties were very much temporary.

But then we also agreed specific dates with the General Workers’ Union for new rosters. (From today), we will take the same duties and try to spread them so people won’t have to work four split shifts in a week – my hope is they will only on average work one.

The main change, agreed with Transport Malta and the GWU, is that we will change the shifts/duties on July 31 after looking back on experiences of previous weeks.

Arriva said it expects most of the ‘no-show’ drivers will not work for the company in future. Is that a mutual parting of ways or have they been sacked?

For me it is not a case of them being sacked. They have breached their contract by definition of not turning up. We have now gone through a large number of those who didn’t show up to establish their positions.

Some were genuinely sick, others were going on holiday but still want to work for us and will presumably join us at some stage. By far the majority, as far as we are concerned, have walked away and terminated their contracts.

Are you concerned they will try to make a legal issue out of this? Much was made of them being ‘guaranteed’ a 10-year job.

No, it’s very, very simple. Arriva has met all of its obligations to former ATP employees and contractually to Transport Malta. They have now frustrated their contracts.

Are there any drivers still not turning up because they want to work for Arriva but feel they have legitimate grievances over working conditions?

I’m not aware of any. Compared with the UK we gave very, very full contracts of employment. We did that because from July 3 we were introducing work practices that are very different to what the sector in Malta had prior to that.

We felt it was only right that before people signed they had a full understanding of the terms and conditions. Clearly the way public transport was organised in the past is very different to what we are doing today, which is typical what you find throughout Europe.

Reaction from former ATP workers has not been all negative – I was talking to a driver the other day who told me he was looking forward to his first rest day in 11 years. And he recognised he now had paid holiday leave. They have to look at the whole package.

Some drivers claim they can earn more and work less working for coach and minibus companies.

From the evidence we collected over the past 18 months to two years, I would say at the very least that is not comparing like with like. According to all the work we did before we put the bid together – and I firmly believe it is still the truth – typically a driver under the ATP regime – and I’m not knocking ATP – would be at work for 90 hours a week and would have to drive for 66 hours. If they elected to do our six-day roster of 54 hours they would get the same pay as they got for 90 hours a week work with 66 hours driving before.

Not all problems can be blamed on driver no-shows. Drivers didn’t know routes, there was faulty technology... Was Arriva unprepared to start operations on July 3?

In general terms I would say no. A phenomenal amount of work was done over the past six months which makes it even more disappointing that we find ourselves in this situation. Without a doubt the driver issue is very hard to recover from.

We can’t close things down and re-group, we have to continue trying to provide the best service we can and take it on the chin. And the driver issue was a very big blow to take on the chin. In the two months leading up to July 3, I was tending to say expectations were high...

...Were they too high? People were promised a public transport revolution. Were they expecting too much from day one?

I don’t think it is a bad thing that expectations were high. What we were trying to say was that you are going to get that (public transport revolution). But it’s such a transformational change that we would like to think with all the work we have done it will be 100 per cent right on day one, but it is unrealistic to think that. Clearly we undershot people’s expectations and our own quite significantly.

Apart from the driver issue, which is impossible to recover from overnight, there were two issues with technology. We are looking at cutting-edge technology, a totally integrated telematics system. We use elements of that in different companies and it is not an issue. But they wanted a totally integrated system here and from the research we did there were only two places in Europe with a totally integrated system. We had some glitches with the system and we are now pretty close to resolving those and turning everything back on...

Did these glitches only come to light on the first day of operations?

There was a big bang approach – everything was done for real for the first time on July 3. The system was, of course, bench tested to the extent we could. We were running around the island making sure Wi-fi signals were okay, making sure destination equipment worked. But it was a limited sample and day one is for real.

The company Thetis that provided it are at the top of the league in integrated systems. Like us they have been working all the hours under the sun and I think we will be switching the system back on imminently.

Another element is actually using the technology. Although everything is effectively GPS driven, the front end of it is the driver signing on to his ticketing machine and driver information system.

Once that is done, the destination display automatically changes along the route.

But drivers were being asked to do something they hadn’t done before. It’s not a particularly complicated process, but it is different.

Did the drivers need more training on this system? They obviously weren’t prepared on day one.

We did ticket machine training. Typically a driver has 10 days of training, and drivers who had only driven cars before had three weeks of training. Training covers road craft, safe driving, customer care, ticket machines, driving different types of vehicles... it’s very comprehensive. But on day one we were bringing together a new set of buses, new staff, a new system, new routes and a new network. In hindsight that was a large amount for staff to take in, regardless how much preparation we had done. It was a totally different environment down to the shifts and how we work.

Did Arriva Malta staff receive the same training like employees in other countries where Arriva has operations?

If anything, they possibly had more. I have spent 18 years working in 12 countries, and I have learnt that cultures are different and you have to adapt to those cultures. Other than cultural adaptation, they have had at least as much training, probably more.

Could it be that some of the problems with equipment were deliberately caused by former ATP drivers? Emanuel Delia said some drivers were reporting faults that turned out to be fine.

There is absolutely no concrete evidence of any of that. In the first couple of days in particular we did a lot of hand holding to help people get used to the signing on processes of the technology and that continued through the first few days.

A lot of these people are experienced drivers and pick it up easily. There is no evidence of people purposely damaging anything. Inevitably, there may be some people who aren’t as positively minded as the majority of the drivers.

With hindsight, would it have been better to roll out the system gradually?

It’s an interesting point. In my career I have been involved with a lot of big bangs. If you’re involved you’d rather not be. But on balance, if you look at where the government had to go from and where it had to get to with public transport, it would have been fraught with difficulties if you had tried to phase it in as well.

My understanding is that seven or eight years ago very significant capital grants were offered to any driver who bought a new bus. That didn’t work for whatever reason, so the big bang approach was probably the only approach that would bring such a transformational change. Every approach has risks and clearly we have undershot but we are determined to put that right.

Is the sub-contracting of non-Arriva vehicles on certain routes an admission that you need more buses?

No, it’s an admission that we need more drivers. We were always going to continue training through to about September. Our view was to get full establishment when the winter timetables kick in, which is scheduled to be mid-October. What we have to do now is step it up, because on July 3 I had a deficit of drivers and a deficit in the training school.

We took two actions to get some semblance of normal service – we recruited temporary foreign drivers primarily from UK and secondly we sub-contracted buses. This gives us the opportunity to re-group, sort out glitches on mainline routes and get them to a state where customers can rely on those services. They will be there only for as long as they have to be for us to achieve that.

How much are the UK drivers being paid?

I wouldn’t discuss wages with the media, whether it were the wages of the UK drivers or my own staff. They are here making a significant contribution. At any future date – perhaps next year’s Olympics, for example – if our colleagues at Arriva London wanted some colleagues from here who drive on the same side they have a source.

Could we see buses from the old service sub-contracted to work Arriva routes?

No. All the old buses have now been taken care of by Transport Malta. Generally speaking an old bus won’t be on the road unless a driver intended to keep it for himself.

How were the buses sub-contracted to ensure quality of service?

We have had a lot of discussions with the association we are using. They know what is expected of our own staff and what we expect of their staff. They were here last weekend getting a thorough briefing on the routes they would be sub-contracted to serve. We tried to brief them as much as possible. And passengers will not be charged on these vehicles.

Some of the routes are very unpopular. Do you blame Transport Malta for this?

From my experience, the best concessions work where the client body and operator work in partnership. Categorically, we have developed a professional and good partnership over the past nine months and that will continue. From that point of view, both Transport Malta and us are at one.

It is quite clear some people are not happy having to transfer buses, or going on what they perceive to be detours. There is a trade-off. We continue to log complaints, although we don’t ultimately control the routes network. We will be fully involved in the review and I feel certain we will work together and changes will be made before the six-month review.

Should experienced local bus drivers have been consulted more about the new routes?

The government makes its own decisions. Looking at the future, clearly when the review takes place there is now on an operator on board who will be able influence and feed into the process.

Were buses properly tested on all routes? There are reports of them adding to congestion in some areas.

I generally think we have the mix of buses right. Nine-metre buses are the maximum on some routes, through to the articulated buses which have proved their weight in gold in terms of being able move people.

Public transport is always in a position of not having a discreet infrastructure, we always have to use the public highway and we have to contend with that. The existing bus lanes were enhanced before the launch, there is a programme to increase number of bus lanes and Transport Malta is looking at a scheme to give priority at traffic lights to buses. So there is certainly the right mood with our client body to build on bus enhancement. Until then we face the vagaries of congestion like anyone else.

Arriva operates in 12 countries. Has Malta proved to be the most difficult start to operations it has faced?

When you are at the front edge of change it’s always difficult. We have entered a number of countries through privatisation – rail or bus – and faced difficult times and challenges.

The unique challenge in Malta was that everything changed. Typically we would acquire a company that already has a workforce and they know what they’re doing and what we are going to do. Here it was zero – no infrastructure, no depot. We had to recruit 900 staff. You don’t have many opportunities in your career to face those sorts of challenges.


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