Opinion | Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Taken for a ride

George M. Mangion

It looks like a pitched battle is looming ahead with government wanting to reform public transport and the bus owners wanting more for their business. As always its the poor taxpayer that will foot the bill for whatever compromise is reached. We recall how the Mid-Med bank with its dozens of high street properties and good business record was sold for a song and dance on the pretext that it was loaded with extra workers. The acquirers quickly devised a handsome retirement scheme targeted to those whom they considered would gain from such an offer while keeping to the ‘normal’ H.R. requirements and about 200 left. Still for the Lm78 million paid for the whole Mid-Med bank, it is worth a fortune now.
A similar sad story is the privatisation of the shipyards. We were informed that over €100 million was paid in compensation for the redundant workers and the payment of debts secured by the state but the sale tag for the whole outfit is nothing like the cost of restructuring.
All this is said in parenthesis when we consider the present bus drivers’ saga and the strong allegation by the Chamber of Commerce and industry that the privatisation cost is too high. Notwithstanding all this we cannot live with the present archaic transport system in such a tiny island with its polluted air.
The movement of goods and people, which we call traffic, is a function of the economy, and behaves exactly as the wider economy does. That is to say, it grows by approximately 2 per cent in a recession period, by 3 per cent or 4 per cent in a boom year. These times one would look at 2 per cent as a useful benchmark, even though the rate at which productivity is growing is probably less than 2 per cent. With a 2 per cent growth in traffic we see how the present old fleet of buses cannot cope with the additional demand. Reading through the Times of Malta, I discovered that there are 508 buses, of which only 131 are recent and modern so called low-floor. The government wishes to scrap the bone shakers and keep only the very old ones as exhibits in a transport museum. What a concept, that is we have been driven in buses that are only fit for a bygone age!
If the government is serious about cutting congestion and emissions why doesn’t it undertake a proper assessment of public transport, raising service levels through out. Rather then create a revolution by buying the whole fleet and then tendering for private investors to take over the minister can try to reform the system itself. One very good idea would be to convert all buses to hydrogen or such like gases. This would reduce costs and help the environment and then once this has been achieved fix the price of every journey, for example all journeys cost the same. Thus considering the smallness of the island one need not have to bother with incremental ticket prices but use one standard fare no matter the distance travelled. Commuters and general car users would flock by the thousands to public transport then as long as it is of a high quality.
Today’s volumes of traffic are large and still growing. Most of us are lax in the way we travel - we use the car too much without thinking of the alternatives or the consequences.
On the other hand, people who are disadvantaged often experience serious difficulties in getting around. They are much less likely to have access to a car than the general population. Regular and reliable public transport services are not available in every community, and for are sometimes unaffordable for older buses the handicapped need special cars to travel. Walking and cycling may not be suitable options for accessing services which are distant or in environments where traffic levels and accident rates are high.
Again cycling may prove fatal as our roads are not yet up to the E U standards and we have had serious accidents in the past by cars or buses hitting cycler’s.


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27 January 2010


Malta Today


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