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?