Malta: On the Buses

Malta is a relatively small island, about 16 miles long (including Gozo) and 9 at its widest, but it has quite a large population for its size, around 450,000. Perhaps because of this density of people, a most amazing bus service has developed over the years and one of the joys of visiting Malta is playing on the buses. To this day there are over 90 bus routes on the main island and a further 16 on Gozo. Unfortunately, today’s service doesn’t have quite the same character as that pre-2011 but compared to our own meagre apology of a transport system it is still an experience to be experienced, in part because it is so comprehensive but mainly because it is still wonderfully eccentric. The service really got going in the 1920s and 30s, all the buses privately owned by a multitude of individuals. Each ‘route’ had its own bus with the owner taking such pride in his vehicle that they all became ‘customized’, not just in basic colour scheme but in all sorts of decoration and facilities. They also did all their own maintenance, which is slightly worrying. The upshot was that buses were kept long after their sell-by date and the healthy(?) competition for routes resulted, not only in one bus owner trying to out-do another (usually in speed) but also complete chaos. There were still 50s era buses operating in 2011 when the fleet was effectively nationalized. [In 2009 there were 508 owner/operator buses with an average vehicle age of 35 years]. The old service was completely idiosyncratic and the pollution from the old vehicles was becoming extreme. You can’t help feeling sorry for Arriva, who were contracted to run the new service. On the first day 70 of the previously independent drivers failed to turn up for work. Mayhem ensued – a bit like Northern Rail. Arriva only lasted three years but did, sadly(?), achieve the introduction of a relatively modern bus fleet. Many people thought the old buses were a safety hazard but after three of Arriva’s ‘bendy’ buses caught fire in 48 hours the Luddites were partially vindicated. Probably best not to ask how they caught fire.
The island ‘terminus’ is just outside the main gate into old Valletta, basically a street with lots of bus stops. It is packed with people (and the occasional bus) at all hours of the day. For visitors, the myriad of available routes can be a little confusing – unless you have a main frame computer in your handbag to work out the itinerary. It is a wonderfully exciting challenge getting from A to B as there are often intriguing variants to the route that you could try. It is a bit like playing the Underground in London (Mornington Crescent) except far more complex. And there is a wild card. To this day, the drivers remain stubbornly eccentric and self-willed. They seem to vary their route at random and drive with a total disregard for anybody else on the road (mind you, so do the car drivers). I have seen passengers, dismayed at apparently going the wrong way, being unceremoniously dumped on a highway slip road into the teeth of oncoming traffic. But it is great fun and you can get to almost anywhere on the island in a very reasonable time – nearly all services are hourly or better.
Matthew Brundrett