Arriva non arriva

Way back in June of this year, I bemoaned the passing of Malta’s distinct yellow buses as yet another nail in the coffin of individuality. Replaced by the sterile bluey-green and white of the new Arriva bendy buses, progress loomed over the island as a new era was heralded. Many years of planning had gone into the transition; many bids were tendered; and Arriva was chosen as the solution to Malta’s public transport problems, promising a cleaner, more efficient, more reliable service.

I’d escaped to Malta early last week, greatly subdued by the goings on in Hungary: on 4 November,  Norbert Ferencz, a social worker who had urged others to reach into trash-cans in protest of the 8th district’s prohibition on the homeless foraging for food, was given a three-year suspended sentence, found guilty of ‘instigating to dumpster dive’. I went in the hope of finding reason and sanity and despite my earlier misgivings, I was looking forward to testing the new bus system.

I needed the X2 to get to St Julians. The ticket office in the airport was closed for 30 mins – or so the sign said. Unfortunately it didn’t say when these 30 minutes of closure had begun. So I went to the machine in the terminal to buy my ticket. It wasn’t working. So I went to the bus stop and found one that was. The price menu confirmed the details in Air Malta’s in flight magazine – the day pass was indeed €1.50 – for Maltese residents. As a tourist, it would cost me €2.60. So much for ye olde EU equality. (Check this blog post from Malta for a rather amusing account of being foreign on the bus.) And, unlike other countries, where day passes run for 24 hours from time of purchase, in Malta they expire at 11pm. But hey ho. Off I went to wait for the X2. Three X3, three X4 and three x5 showed up before my X2. I never saw an X1 so can’t testify to its existence. The ticker tape showed X2 but two sheets of neon yellow A4 paper bore a large black X and 3 housed in clear plastic sleeves sellotaped to the window… a bus with an identity crisis. (And how … corporate.) But I was assured that it was an X2. And given the 40-minute wait I’d had, I was really beyond caring. Off we went, on our sightseeing tour. Around the world for sport – up by the hypogeum, down to the racetrack, in through the extensive grounds of the Mater Dei hospital, and then finally, finally, finally to St Julians.

During the week I was there, I brought Arriva up in various conversations and far from being the golden child of transport systems, the story moved from the sublime to the ridiculous. Local author Trevor Zahra captured public feeling in verse (scroll down in link for English translation). Longer journey times, undependable timetables, and many breakdowns have driven the Maltese to take their cars to the roads. One person estimated that everyone who could drive in Malta was now driving. The traffic, once bad, is now horrendous. You can taste the air. The vibrant, belching buses of old at least had character. This concession to progress is even more subduing – is there no escape?

The price of progress

On 3 July, residents of the town of Malta in the state of New York, will be getting ready to celebrate the holiday of holidays – Independence Day. On the island of Malta, the aptly named Arriva  company will be rolling out a fleet of new buses as the yellow and orange tanks of yore will be retired to pasture. What some diehard romantics (myself included) see as yet another homogenous nail in the coffin of individuality, will be welcomed by many locals.

These clunking beasts are in varying states of well-being. Some have been cared for and spoiled like an only child, while others have the neglected look of wanton strays. The strange system of owner/drivers has been around in Malta for years. Some buses have been handed down from father to son and are very much part of the family. Many are built on the chasis of WWII British Army vehicles  – and other than the colour (which replaced the previous green in 1995), they are quite distinct.

Yes, some of the drivers would do better in a rally car. And yes, some of them lever the concept of rudeness to new heights. But for all that, they’re like that eccentric old Aunt that everyone loves yet no-one wants to spend time with. Traffic in Malta is a nightmare. Finding a parking space can take hours – literally – believe me, I know! There is no room to expand the roads and add bus lanes. So it’s difficult to see how this new fleet will improve the situation.

The Malta Government document that outlines the new services promises ‘lower fares for all residents’. Currently, to get from St Julians to Valetta costs 0.47 c. Next month, a resident making that journey will have to pay €1.30. Granted that ticket is valid for 2 hours but what if they want to stay longer? Another €1.30 to get home? Ok, they could buy a day pass – for €1.50 but if they’re only making one return trip, that still doesn’t come out any cheaper. It has to be that the intention is to have lower fares for residents – not lower than they are now, but lower than what the tourists pay – that’s the only way the sums add up!

Perhaps it’s about a more comfortable journey – better airconditioning, comfier seats, trained drivers! The new buses certainly look slick (if a tad bland) and am sure the matching uniforms will spruce up the drivers, too. But will they be as flexible? Now, it seems that you can hop off a Malta bus anywhere you like – a word in the ear and the bus comes to a halt and off you go. Doubt that will be happening next month. Flexibuses can be remarkably rigid!

I’m all for progress – or at least, I think I am. Or I was. Am not sure any more. I see what’s happening at home in Ireland with the bogs, and in Malta with the buses, and I have to wonder at the price of this progress. And yes, I’ve seen the black plumes of smoke from some of these buses and I appreciate the environmental argument for getting rid of them, but I still wonder at the relative ease at which we cast aside tradition. It seems like more could be done to make what we have better… and to treat it like a legacy instead of constantly upgrading ourselves to the point where we’re in danger of forgetting who we are.

Saps and saplings

I have amused myself to the point of inanity in recent months trying to work out a pattern to BKV’s seemingly random staffing of controllers at my local metro station. Just when I felt I was on the brink of some major discovery, after nearly five months of mental note-taking and complex calculations, they’ve disappeared. And they left without even saying goodbye. For two days now, I’ve had to brave the escalators into the wider world without their customary cheery jó reggelts and köszönöms. I feel like my right arm has been cut off… the one that’s itching to wear one of those armbands.

I’ve heard tell of those who’ve passed through the jegyellenőr gauntlet with the same ticket twenty times or more; or those who’ve travelled for weeks on an expired pass. So I have to wonder what exactly is it that my friends with the armbands think they’re controlling. I’m not the first to wonder why the BKV doesn’t just install ticket machines at metro stations. Or have front-entry buses? And I certainly won’t be the last sap to ask why not? So why not?  

Sledges, skis or saplings?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a great fan of the BKV. I really am. It’s one of the best public transport systems I’ve encountered in my travels. Its detractors should trying living in cities where buses travel in bunches, if they travel at all, or where timetables express hope rather than intent. Perhaps we’re both on the same cycle but I’ve rarely, if ever, had to wait more than five minutes for a bus, tram or metro to come get me. There are clocks to tell me exactly how long I can expect to be kept waiting. The journey planning tool on the website has demystified Budapest for me making even the remotest parts accessible. And the English-language instructions about what I can carry with me are simple and to the point: one sledge, one pair of skis, one wrapped sapling tree or a pram.

Back in the early days when, although a seasoned traveler, I was a BKV novice, I thought that as long as I stayed underground my ticket was valid. I changed lines and didn’t validate a second ticket. I was nabbed at Nyugati, my book of tickets confiscated, and demands made on me for my passport and 5000 ft. I had neither. I asked to go to an ATM to get the money and by the time I got back, the lady with the armband (the one I’m itching to wear) had vanished. I reckoned I owed the universe about 3000 ft (the fine minus the cost of a book of tickets), a debt I duly discharged using the next homeless man I met as my broker. It wasn’t an experience I particularly wanted to repeat. So, after calculating that I’d cover the cost of my pass by Day 17 (I can be a little dim at times), I decided to cross over to the other side of the tracks and go the Havi Budapest-bérlet route. I also corrected that unwitting mistake I made when first recounting this story: my ticket wasn’t inspected…I was controlled!

Off tramway

My pass is like a front-row ticket to a series of vignettes played out in front of me at least once a day. As the controllers board and take a minute to get in costume, the actors take their cues. The martyred monthlies sigh in exasperation as they root through their bags and pockets, annoyed that their respectability is being called into question. Those on the precipice of pensiondom frown slightly, adding those all important extra wrinkles in their attempt to look just a little beyond the magic age of 65. Those who have already passed this mark smile a peculiarly self-congratulatory smile that admonishes ‘you, too, can travel for free when you’ve clocked up as many miles as I have’. The pubescent plugged-ins barely miss a beat as they languidly show their passes. And then there are the dodgers; highly skilled performers of a different kind.

The starers simply stare, be it out the window or into space or at their shoes, hoping the controller won’t be too persistent. The diversionists get on their mobiles and launch into a very important business call from which they cannot possibly be disturbed. The magicians disappear out of one carriage and reappear in another. The expressionists look amazed at the fact that their passes have expired. The innocents smile and simper…and make like tourists. It’s a Mecca for the method actor.

But because I’m concentrating on not behaving in a way which is scandalous or antisocial, and because I don’t get to wear an armband, I’m relegated to sitting quietly with my wrapped sapling tree and enjoying the performance.

This article first published in the Budapest Times 22 November 2009