The number of buses will be halved and hubs in different localities will take the bulk of buses away from the disorderly Valletta bus terminus, according to proposals to overhaul the public transport system.

The idea is that not all buses will start and end up in Valletta but will be shared among nodes to be set up in Paola, Marsa, Rabat, Mosta Technopark, Birkirkara, Mater Dei Hospital, Luxol and BuÄĦibba.

The plans were presented by Manuel Delia, head of the Transport Ministry's secretariat, who explained the proposals in detail during a national conference on public transport reform held yesterday at the Eden Century's Cinema 16 in St Julians.

The conference brought to an end the first part of public consultation on the reform which has been going on since July.

One of the suggestions is to introduce a number of park-and-ride systems that will run for some 17 hours a day, as well as a night service running all week to various localities and not just to and from Paceville as is the situation at the moment.

There will be mainline routes running every 10 to 30 minutes, "cross-line" routes operating from the new nodes and "feeder-line" routes which will serve small communities and run every 30 minutes. Bus drivers will work eight-hour shifts including breaks and real-time information will be available for commuters.

The government is proposing that the present 508 buses be reduced to 270, with buses of various sizes and engines that are Euro III compliant, as well as electric and low-floor buses.

Mr Delia said the proposals were based on the complaints usually aired about the present system: No connection between neighbouring villages; a lack of proper information and of punctuality; inefficient bus ticketing; impolite drivers; and buses that are old, grimy and polluting.

The patronage of 65 million passenger trips a year in the 1970s dropped to 32 million in recent years. Moreover, the present system did not take into account the urban development that had taken place over the years.

At one point the meeting became rowdy when a slide with a few pictures of modern buses that will replace the old orange buses appeared on screen.

The bus drivers started shouting at the top of their voices that they were the only ones who knew what being a public transport operator really meant.

"You have no experience in public transport," a red-faced bus driver yelled, to loud applause from his colleagues.

One operator said being a bus driver was a difficult job and all his family had to pitch in. His 13-year-old son cleaned the inside of his father's bus after he finished his homework while his 20-year-old son washed the bus from the outside.

Transport Minister Austin Gatt explained that the reform's final aim was geared to benefit commuters and the country, since changes introduced in recent years have always excluded the participation of commuters.

He added that the proposals were "not cast in stone" and the government was prepared to fine-tune them.

Malta, he said, had a higher number of cars per capita than the EU and Japan, and just slightly lower than the US. He said 16 per cent of household spending was being directed towards transport.

An efficient public transport system was fundamental to the country's economic and social success, he insisted, adding that estimates showed that 71 per cent of trips in Malta were made with private cars.

On the subject of taxis, Dr Gatt said there were 200 licenced taxis in Malta and 50 in Gozo. The reform had to be carried out and EU rules applied - 2009 was the year of change to a truly cheaper alternative to the private car.

During question time, several drivers complained that the new network was based on the wrong data, taking into account the whole population, not the patronage.

They compared the design of the new routes to the London underground which, they insisted, did not make sense in the local scenario. One charged that the intention of the reform was to destroy their livelihood.

A representative of the National Commission for People with Disabilities spoke on the need for accessibility. Ironically, the woman had to speak from the very back of Cinema 16 because it was not accessible for wheelchair-bound people.

Closing the debate, Dr Gatt said the government understood drivers' concerns but the reform was necessary. He reiterated the promise that drivers who lost their jobs as a result of the reform would be duly compensated.

"Today's system does not work. Now it has to change and improve the quality of the service," he said.

Consultant David Simmons, from the Halcrow Group, also intervened with a presentation on the potential of introducing a tram service in Malta. He suggested the introduction of trams on two routes: between Valletta and Sliema, and one between Valletta, Birkirkara and Ta' Qali.

The 14 trams on these routes, he said, would operate between 6 a.m. and midnight with journeys of 15 minutes for the first route and 21 minutes for the second.

The investment in this service would need to be hefty at between €205 and €325 million to set it up and around €7.2 million a year for maintenance and operating costs.

However, Dr Gatt said that during the reform discussions, it emerged that a tram and metro system were not viable. To be feasible, the metro needed 50,000 passengers every hour, impossible for a country the size of Malta. A tram system would need a huge investment and 5,000 passengers a day to sustain.

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