If you think Londoners are always complaining about public transport, you should try catching a bus in Malta. Travel problems have become so bad that a man went on hunger strike over modified bus routes this summer, a situation that was only diffused when the prime minister paid a personal visit to the aggrieved and convinced him to eat two kiwi fruits. Last month hundreds of disgruntled commuters marched through the streets in protest about the new system.
And now, to add more spice to the situation, British transport company Arriva has shipped its bendy buses over to the island.
The exact same buses, in fact, to which Boris Johnson bid a “final but not fond farewell” when they were removed from London on Friday because they couldn’t navigate the city’s narrow streets.
“These bulky and ungainly monstrosities were always more suitable for the wide open vistas of a Scandinavian airport than for London,” said the city’s mayor. “I am glad to see the back of them.”
But no sooner had Arriva’s vehicles begun to disappear from London, they started to pop up in Malta. The oversized buses can now be seen trying to inch themselves along the narrow streets of Malta’s historic towns, with all the grace of a rhino stuck in a Wendy house.
All over the island there are buses attempting to circumvent mini-roundabouts or squeeze themselves into parking bays made for vehicles half their size, with varying degrees of success. A hapless bendy bus floundering on a street corner has become a daily event, as its driver stands behind helplessly surveying the situation.
It’s difficult to imagine a place that would be less suited to these “ungainly monstrosities” than Malta. With its medieval cities, village lanes and winding hillside roads, Malta is to the bendy bus what Scotland is to the panda. The conditions are the exact opposite of what it requires, but they’ve spent thousands trying to make it work anyway.
The public transport system in Malta has been undergoing wide-ranging changes this year. As there are no trains, tubes or trams (the island is smaller than the Isle of Wight, after all) this essentially means the bus system. The contract was given to Arriva but, on the very first day of its service, many of the drivers went on strike. The company’s solution was to fly replacement bus drivers in from the UK, unfazed by the fact that they knew neither the routes nor the language.
When the plan finally got out of first gear there were huge delays, with some passengers claiming to have been left waiting for hours. Given the company’s name, the Italian for “arriving” (a language that many Maltese speak due to the close proximity), it’s not difficult to imagine the sort of jokes that soon began to circulate at bus stops, and it was quickly nicknamed Aspetta (“waiting”).
The problem is not just the ungainly length of the vehicles but also the width. The transport authority insists they fall within the size limit allowed on Maltese roads, and an investigation by the Times of Malta confirmed that they fit (with not a millimetre to spare). As one traffic expert pointed out, however, the real problems arise when two buses try to negotiate the same street in opposite directions.
Arriva’s buses, both bendy and otherwise, have replaced Malta’s beautiful vintage buses, which have now been variously consigned to the museum or, worse, the scrapheap. Under the old system each bus was owned by its driver, who would decorate it himself, giving each its own personality and charm. Some buses had been passed down from father to son, or even been hand built by the family that owned them. Others were imported second-hand from the UK during the 1980s.
The old buses were, admittedly, beginning to creak with age, and the majority didn’t meet EU standards on carbon emissions, but the upgrade could scarcely have been more undignified. Small wonder Johnson was so pleased to see the back of the monstrous bendy bus; it’s been welcomed in Malta with an embrace about as wide as the island’s medieval streets.