Malta buses face the end of the road

This bus aficionado travels to Valletta for one last look

By Gerald Rawling

Schools out! Graduates of a Valetta academy hire a bus — the older the better seems to be the rule — for a rowdy “right-of-passage” celebration. Photo by Gerald Rawling

Before my recent visit to the small Mediterranean island of Malta, my colleagues advised me in advance to pay close attention to the iconic Maltese buses. Although they are being phased out of the public transportation system, they will certainly not be forgotten. Bus enthusiasts on a shopping spree in Valletta, the capital city and a UNESCO Heritage site itself, will be the first to spot the recurring motif of the bygone bus on postcards, key chains, refrigerator magnets and mouse pads, just to name a few of the souvenirs.

The Maltese buses, usually painted in some gaudy combination of yellow-orange and red, or grey-blue and red on the smaller island of Gozo, have been the public transport on Malta since 1931, two years after the last run of the Malta Railways streetcars.

The last of the Malta long noses in regular service — a Ford Thames from Dagenham. Photo source: Wikemedia Commons, author Taueres — a Ford Thames from Dagenham. Photo source: Wikemedia Commons, author Taueres

During post-World War II, these workhorses first were “long noses” built on British or Canadian truck chassis with manual gearboxes, and frequently “tricked out” by the driver-owner and a supporting garage. A parade of some of the chassis were literally left behind or gifted by the Allies military units.

Only one long nose remains in regular service. In the 1960s and 1980s came a motley collection of British buses, some ex-town and country, some ex-holiday coaches.

In recent years some imports to the system have been Volvos, Turkish BMCs, and a number of King Longs from China. Maltese garages and body shops are very inventive, having gone the length to rework the front of a long nose into a seriously “flat-nosed” bus that emulates the newer vehicles.

Now, for these time-warp icons their number is up, ostensibly because they collectively breach many of the arcane EU rules for operating public transport vehicles, such as drivers’ hours at the wheel, lack of accessibility, and particularly emission standards.

Riding the tortuous and switchback Route 4 around Valletta harbor to climb over Cospicua into Kalkara proves there is some truth to the latter indictment; grinding gears and laboring engines suggest some noise standards are being violated at the same time. The public authority, Malta Transport, put the whole network up for grabs. As of July 3, the operator will be global powerhouse Arriva, now owned by Deutsche Bahn.

“Standard issue” city or county transit buses; also secondhand from Britain, and probably ex-London Transport Leyland Lynxes, on routes to Hamrun, Birkirkara, Rabat. Here they squeeze past on the main commercial and retail street through Hamrun.

The prevailing bus color will be Arriva teal. Could it perhaps include a flash of yellow-red and orange to at least acknowledge the icons they displaced?

The Malta bus system of today is a mixture of makes and models from many countries. The fleet numbers about 510 units with more than 400 licensed operators, and a network of body shops and garages to keep the buses running. It is not unusual for an operator to alternate between a 16-hour day and a day off.

A management team elevated from the ranks hands out written route assignments bi-weekly and watches over them daily. The public authority, Transport Malta, conducts general oversight to see that the team fulfills all its assignments.

If the callers on open mike radio in Malta are representative, then the population is not in favor of the change over. Arriva says it will restructure the route system, using only half the number of buses for the same overall service level, but more drivers will be needed if they intend to conform to service hours regulations and continue with limited night service. The plan is to discontinue its current national subsidy in excess of three million Euros and introduce a universal national-level fare.

This is the essential Malta postcard — the all-day, every day bus rodeo that is the terminus for the large number of routes radiating from the capital Valetta. The bus on a truck chassis is circa 1950, body by Brincat, a Maltese coachbuilder, and customized by the owner.

For now, while some buses are being repainted or being traded in there is a steady, stream of truly international bus aficionados principally from Britain pouring onto Malta with spotters’ books and web downloads in hand to get that last video or photo. BR

Bus enthusiast Gerald Rawling, a retired metropolitan transportation planner, is the former director of operations analysis for the Chicago area transportation system.