Thursday, 14 July 2011

A different new normal!

This week I am experiencing a different sort of struggle for new normal. The country of Malta has a new bus service. All bus numbers and most routes have changed and it is taking some considerable getting used to on the part of both the new bus company and passengers.

The old yellow Maltese buses were very old and distinctive; the service slow and often quirky. The new bus service has introduced new efficient and less polluting buses and a supposedly more efficient service requiring fewer buses but including larger ones and with more streamlined routes. That is the theory, anyhow. The reality is somewhat different.

I arrived in Malta just after the new service had started and the big improvement I was anticipating is that there is a new bus route going from the airport to the place where I'm staying. I followed the new signage to the airport bus terminus and waited. And waited. And waited. Buses came and went in total chaos, but although there were several for some routes (most of which left the terminus with virtually no passengers) there were none for the anticipated new route for which I was waiting.

The buses have one set of numbers and routes written on their sides, another number displayed at the top front and a third number on cards in the front window. It is this one in the front window, I have now learned, that is the actual bus number - until it is changed by the driver, of course! Much of the time the drivers didn't seem to know their route number and they were constantly changing these cards. A group of inspectors remained over the other side of the road in their air-conditioned cars and a handful of Arriva employees sent out from Liverpool to learn the routes were trying to fend off enquiries. They were lovely chaps, these Liverpool men, but their only advantage over us bewildered customers was that they had brochures and maps of the new routes. Eventually, after realising that he wasn't going to find me my bus in the foreseeable future, one of them gave me his map, put me on a bus for Valletta and told the driver not to charge me for the journey. There was more chaos at Valletta and the new bus station seems to be causing great congestion, but I managed to find the stop for my next bus and got one without too much difficulty.

Since then, every day we have been out and about using buses there have been problems. Buses run at less frequent intervals than advertised. As a result, when they do arrive they are often too full to take any more passengers. Sometimes everything grinds to a halt because the driver says that there are too many people standing on board and that some have to get off, while no-one is prepared to do so. Sometimes buses don't seem to stick to their designated routes and they often 'run short'. The air-con can be a bit over-enthusiastic so that while it is almost 30 C outside people are wrapping up inside the bus! If you ask drivers for information they may tell you they don't know but if they do give it, then it may be completely wrong.

Yesterday I was waiting with a steadily increasing crowd for a well overdue bus at Valletta bus station. Eventually what looked like a hired-in coach with our bus number in the front window arrived. Clearly we were not all going to get on it and by now I was sufficiently used to proceedings to throw aside my British queueing habits in order to ensure that I was not left behind. Because it was an old-fashioned coach, some of the elderly people in the queue had great difficulty getting on board and it took a number of us 'assisting' one chap to get him up the steps. There was great unrest because it was then stated that the bus would not stop in the first area on its route and some people got off again, grumbling loudly. Once on board it was clear that there were no facilities for taking money and issuing tickets - although most people (including me) already had day or weekly ones purchased previously. The driver watched us all get on board, the seats fill and a line of people take up positions for standing. Then he said that no standing was allowed on this bus and that all those standing were to get off. Slightly to my surprise, given previous experience of such standoffs, the standing passengers did get off with little more than a lot more grumbling. I wasn't entirely sure of when I needed to get off the bus but fortunately was sitting next to a very helpful Maltese lady who translated some of the uproar for me and later prompted me when it was my stop.

Some of the drivers are less than helpful and more than a little bit surly. This may be because they are under considerable pressure at the moment, but it isn't helping the situation. On one journey a more than slightly hysterical co-driver gave us totally inaccurate information when we changed buses, although her colleague who was actually driving seemed, thankfully, much more placid. At the other extreme, my return journey yesterday included a highly thoughtful and helpful driver who discussed the best options for my complicated route home, told me what other buses I would need, and when and where to change.

We were intending to buy another weekly ticket for next week but have now decided to limit as far as possible the amount of bus travel next week and not to buy a weekly ticket. And we will NOT be taking the new bus to the airport for our flight to the UK!

Clearly the bus system of Malta is struggling to find the way in its own land of new normal!


  1. Eliza, what an adventure! I've never been to Malta, but if I ever go there, I will be sure to stay clear of the bus system. At least you got that one driver who was so helpful. Sounds like a rarity in a country of new normal rarities.

  2. It is a lovely country, but the new bus service is an absolute nightmare. We have taken to walking more (over an hour's walk home after last night's concert) and swimming from the local rocks rather than the secluded beach we like on the other side of the island. So pleased I got that helpful driver!