Malta Vintage

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The traditional Maltese bus has made a return to public services with a vintage city tour between Valetta and St Julians. AUSTIN BLACKBURN

Malta’s public bus network has seen major changes over the last decade, and now its once-common route buses are making a return on a heritage service, as Jonathan Welch reports

Most people will have heard of Malta, and for many it will bring forth thoughts of holidays in the sun. Some might even be able to point to it on a map. But for those with a knowledge of public transport, mention of the Mediterranean island and its smaller near-neighbour Gozo will bring to mind its buses. For those who work within the bus industry, that will bring back memories of the not too distant past, of Arriva’s entry, and relatively quick exit. For the more vehicle-orientated enthusiast, thoughts will likely turn to the Malta of a time before Arriva, before aquamarine; a time of bright yellow buses of all kinds and ages, some bearing little resemblance to their original appearance.

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By the time of the Arriva take-over in 2011, around 150 more modern low-floor buses had been introduced, although the way that service provision was arranged meant that their impact was limited and their use hotch-potch to the casual observer.

Brief history
Malta’s 500-plus yellow buses were in the main owned, operated and maintained by individuals and small groups, and to ensure fairness were operated on a day-on, day-off rota basis with buses rotating around every route to make sure that everyone had a share of good and bad routes, whilst those on their day off would cover school or private hire work, or undertake repairs and maintenance. This meant that the low-floor buses could be found on any route on any given day. Nonetheless, it was a first step towards the modernisation of the island’s fleet, replacing buses dating from as far back as the 1930s, some of which remained in use until their 2011 replacement en masse.

After the Arriva take-over, and subsequent retreat which left services renationalised in the hands of Malta Public Transport, those famous yellow buses became history. Services are now operated by a fleet of low-floor buses operated by National-Express owned ALSA subsidiary Autobuses Urbanos de León, still under the Malta Public Transport name, which carry a somewhat plain lime green and white livery. Autobuses Urbanos de León operates a modern fleet, with the familiar lines of Mercedes-Benz Citaros and Optare Solos joining products by King Long alongside less familiar Otokar single-deckers, many of which have centre exits to improve passenger flow.

Many of the historic buses remained in the hands of Heritage Malta, with a view to forming a museum showing the island’s industrial heritage, whilst some were retained by former owners and operators. After many years of efforts by local enthusiasts and former operators, some of these buses returned to public service in December, operating vintage sightseeing trips from Valletta to St Julians and back.

Many of the buses previously used in Malta will be familiar to British enthusiasts to a greater or lesser extent. Vehicles such as ex-London AEC Swifts, Plaxton and Duple coaches, and more modern buses including Leyland Lynxes and Optare Excels rubbed shoulders with older, front-engined vehicles of an earlier generation, which had been modernised, rebuilt and customised to various degrees during their time on the island, to reflect their owners’ individual style as well as to keep them in service using available resources.

Plaxton front panels of various styles seemed particularly popular as a means to update the look of older front-entrance buses, whilst many gained signwriting proudly declaring the vehicle manufacturer or engine type – one has to wonder what some islanders, or indeed tourists, would have made of buses proudly declaring ‘Leyland Turbo,’ ‘Duple Dominant’ or ‘Bedford’! Others still carried more personalised messages or names, such as ‘Life in Heaven’ or ‘Birdline.’ More modern buses included Plaxton and East Lancs-bodied Darts and a handful of unique right-hand drive Solaris Vallettas, plus King Long XMQ6113GMCs and BMC Falcons.

Vintage Tours
After a significant amount of negotiation with the authorities and preparation by their owners, a number of those vintage buses returned to regular service in December, providing a regular tourist service between the island’s capital at Valletta and St Julians, situated to the north of Valletta on the east coast. It leaves Valletta’s City Gate, and travels around the Valletta peninsula to give passengers a view of the Grand Harbour before climbing to Floriana and passing through Msida, Sliema and St Julians, terminating at St George’s Bay. The service operates hourly, with buses leaving Valletta on the hour from 0900 to 1800hrs. A full round trip is expected to take around 90 minutes depending on traffic, with arrival at St Julians around 40-45 minutes after departure from Valletta. Fares are very reasonable for the trips, with adult tickets priced at €2.50 for a single or €4.50 return, whilst children pay €1.50/€3 respectively.

The vehicles have been restored to a very high standard in local workshops, helping to keep traditional coachbuilding skills alive. AUSTIN BLACKBURN

Although travel remains restricted, the launch of the service went ahead in December, and was brought to CBW’s attention by Austin Blackburn at Sevenoaks-based Go-Coach, who has a long-standing interest in the island’s transport, and who owns two preserved traditional Malta route buses. Austin also brought a 2003 King Long to the UK from Malta, which first joined the Go-Coach operational fleet and is now in preservation.

Austin explained a little more to CBW about the vintage bus route and the buses: “The guys out there had been thinking for years about running a heritage service,” he said. “It had been very difficult to plan to do anything, but the political climate at the moment makes it easier to get good things done. There was a feeling that now was the right time. I think it’s brilliant what they’re doing. You can buy merchandise featuring the iconic buses, but none were running any more, there was no relevance, it seemed like the island was missing a trick.

“It took a long time to get to this point – but that meant more time to think and to plan, to assess whether the route was too long or too cheap. They need to gear up now to market the route to tourists, they’ve had special tickets made. The vehicles pretty much sell themselves, and Malta itself is a fantastic place, very pretty. Lots of people used to go there to see the old vehicles. The people there are friendly and very proud of their past and their history.”

Living history
The idea for the new Vintage Bus City Tour came from Manuel Cutajar, owner of Zinnu Bus and Coach, which operates a fleet of modern coaches, and Zinnu Garage, one of the island’s largest bodyshops. Manuel got together with a group of colleagues to get the venture off the ground: “It’s something which started burning in my mind years ago,” he said. “I was the only one crazy enough to think about it. I am a third generation bus operator. My grandparents were, and my father spent 45 years as an owner-operator.

Like the UK, Malta has seen its coach industry lose most of its work, which relied heavily on inbound tourists. “In about May or June last year when the coach sector went down,” Manuel continued, “I talked to some colleagues and we agreed it was time to think about it. We set up the company, which is a joint venture between five operators. We received approval in September and started running the service on 19 December.”

Manuel was keen to stress that although it was his idea, getting the tour off the ground has been very much a joint effort. Other operators involved are: France Galea (Koptaco Coaches); Ettienne Falzon (Bajadera Garage); Leo Grech (Paramount Coaches); and Nazzareno Abela (Supreme Coaches).

“The first day was very quiet, but it slowly picked up and we were carrying passengers once people saw we were here. Of course, it was still very quiet, there are almost no tourists in Malta right now, but the service has been well received. It was something that was missing from the market. We couldn’t start in September but we decided we needed to start, to do something positive and get things going. We had everything ready to go. I’m happy we did.

“We chose to start with this route as it is the one which is the most popular for tourists, when they come back, but we hope to expand to other routes and with more buses. We’re working on three more buses right now; we hope to have around 15 buses. We’ve had a lot of support from the government and Transport Minister too, the response has been very positive from them. They gave us a great location in Valletta to start from.

“Right now we are using two buses daily, on alternate journeys. We hope to expand with routes to Buggibba, Rabat and the open air weekend market in Marsaxlokk. We’re planning to introduce digital destination blinds and have the facility to take contactless payments – we are keeping in step with technology,” Manuel said. Digital destination screens on a historic bus might make enthusiasts gasp, but it seems to fit in very well with the traditional Malta bus ethos of constant evolution and improvement.

Manuel was also interviewed by local newspaper The Times of Malta, and highlighted that a whole generation is growing up without seeing the island’s traditional buses: “The old buses were replaced almost 10 years ago, so anyone under the age of 14 will not remember our old buses. Now there is this opportunity for all generations of a family to go back in time together to sample buses the way they used to be,” he told the newspaper.

He added that the later journeys would add to the atmosphere of the old buses too: “With the 1700 and 1800hrs departures from Valletta being in the dark, these trips also give the chance to sample the subtle lighting of these buses and the illuminated shrine by the driver’s cabin.”

Vehicle variety
There were a vast number of different buses in use on the island, and the vintage bus service will make use of only a small number of the types once seen, dating from the earlier end of the age-range. At the time of the launch, four vehicles were available for the service: three Ford Thames ET7s and a Bedford OB, dating from the 1950s. A fourth ET7 along with a second OB and a Dodge 100T are due to join the fleet during the year. At present only normal control bonneted buses are being allowed to be registered.

The buses have been restored and painted in liveries reflecting the different periods of operation. Some wear the route liveries used before 1973: one is in the traditional green and white livery of the Sliema route, another wears the orange Żurrieq route livery. A third can be seen in the brown of the Mosta route, and a fourth carries the blue and red of the Żabbbar route.

The more modern and well-known livery of white and yellow separated by a bright orange stripe, which was in use from 1995 to 2011 has not been forgotten either. Enthusiasts wishing to see more modern vehicles, such as the many variations of Plaxton bodywork from the 1970s and 1980s will be disappointed for now, but the choice of vehicles is very much one which will appeal to both the enthusiast and tourist segments of the market.

The liveries, Manuel explained, were originally different colours for different routes, with 16 route colours in all: “We’ve tried to add variety with different vehicle types and using some of the different route colours,” he said.

Austin explained that this had been introduced to help illiterate passengers identify which bus they needed to catch. However, by the mid 1970s this was considered to be very demeaning to a largely literate population, and the decision was made to adopt a green and white livery for all buses. The later yellow livery was based on the colours used on buses on the Żebbuġ and Siġġiewi routes.

UK following

Bright orange was the traditional route colour for the Żurrieq route. AUSTIN BLACKBURN

Malta’s buses have always been popular with UK enthusiasts. Austin went on to explain a little more about his own buses, which are popular when seen out and about at events in the UK: “I own two ex-Malta buses, one is a AEC Swift which worked until 2011,” he said. “But it is nothing like it was when it was new. The horizontal rear engine has been taken out, it has a centre engine and a manual transmission. A Duple Dominant lower front dash panel has been fitted, which has been cut and shrunk to fit. The floor has been raised. They are great engineers over there, they look and ask ‘what can we make fit,’ none of the buses are original. When it comes to preserving one, I have adopted the same view – I’m not looking to make it ‘original’ as the buses have seen so many changes throughout their lives. I always say the rule in restoring a Maltese bus is that there is no rules.”

Both Austin’s buses were supplied by Manuel, who drove the first of the pair across Europe to deliver it, via the ferry to Genova, and then taking two and a half days to reach Kent, accompanied by a group of eight friends. “My other is a Bedford, which started life as a QL wartime truck,” continued Austin. “I bought it in 2009. The chassis has been lengthened, and a locally-built bus body by Sammut fitted in 1960. The owner originally fitted it with a Deutz engine from a previous bus, and then in 1971 it had a Leyland engine fitted. There’s hardly anything Bedford left on it,” he said, going on to wonder how local drivers coped with driving long days in the cramped cab: “Your left leg is touching the engine cover, there’s just a steel panel between you and the turbocharger. You wonder how they drove it, especially on hot days.”

Nonetheless, Austin said that the skills of those who owned and worked on the buses had to be admired, often making do with what was available or affordable to keep a bus serviceable. “The guys over there are great when it comes to bodywork, their skills are amazing. All the panels are hand crafted, the skills are being continued by only a few body shops on the island.”

Whilst the presentation and individuality of the buses was something to be proud of, Austin said that change and modernisation was inevitable as a result of a number of factors, including that under the owner-operator regime, some of the mechanical standards of the vehicles were not as high as they might have been. Car ownership is now rising on the archipelago too, with figures of up to 30 new cars per day cited, leading to increasing traffic problems. Coupled with lots of free parking, the old network, which, despite the enthusiasm of owners and enthusiasts, was often seen as disorganised, and needed to be revamped and modernised to bring back passengers and provide a viable alternative to the car.

Austin kindly explained a little more about the background to traditional bus operations in Malta: “The majority of buses were run by owner-operators. Some worked for companies, the biggest company had 20 buses, but it was not uncommon to have one, two or three buses with a family as drivers, or for them to be passed down from father to son. There were stories of 14-year old kids going out to drive if the father wasn’t well!

“The buses were operated as one big co-operative, with everyone on a common rota. Every driver did every duty, on a one-day-on, one-day-off basis. That meant it was fair, as every driver did every route, but not good for routes which started at the opposite end of the island, so drivers would often swap with friends. They would all pay in their takings, and the money would be divided equally every fortnight, along with subsidy payments. That meant that all drivers got part of it, and those on busier routes in summer didn’t benefit unfairly as it was shared out equally.

“The payments to bus owners when Arriva took over were very lucrative. Effectively they did a scheme to buy the operators out of their licences. Lots of buses were handed in, parked up and eventually went for scrap, but some families decided to keep the bus rather than take the money.

“Some of the old ones are still owned by Heritage Malta, but I’m not sure they see them as a priority or part of Malta’s long history – maybe that’s understandable when you are talking about a place which has sites that pre-date Stonehenge by 1,000 years, but it would be a shame to lose them altogether. Much of Valletta was built in the 1700s and is still much the same. Heritage Malta does its best, but has to focus its funding on the significant sites. Tourism brings in around 10% of GDP, as does online gaming, which accounts for another 10%.”

Looking to the future
Now that the door has been opened, once the coronavirus pandemic is itself history, the many tourists who head to Malta each year will no doubt appreciate and enjoy the service. And with a foot in the door, as passenger numbers increase and as the operators gain experience and confidence, could more old buses appear on Malta’s streets? Manuel and his team may well see opportunities to expand their offering to include other routes and destinations as a way to show off the island’s heritage from aboard an equally important part of Malta’s more recent history. There are only about 25 bonneted buses left so Manuel’s company Zinnu Bus and Coach is considering building vintage buses from scratch to meet future demand.

However, the vintage buses may not be the only retro vehicles on Malta’s streets if a 2019 concept by Jonathan Mizzi, of London-based Mizzi Studio, who grew up on Malta, becomes reality. Jonathan suggested a fleet of retro-inspired electric single-deckers, retaining familiar features such as chrome, blended with modern practicality and style.

Shown as part of an exhibition in 2019, Malta Public Transport’s General Manager Konrad Pule told the Times of Malta that the company was “delighted” to support the project, and Transport Malta said the project was “fully aligned with the objectives and general direction of the electro mobility programme.” Malta’s Transport Minister Ian Borg described the proposal as ‘something to think about.’ “When the time arrives for the country to change its fleet,”he told the newspaper, “considering such a fantastic design with the added benefit of being electric is something to look at.” So who knows, after a period in the hands of mainstream modern buses, vintage style may yet one day return in force to Malta’s bus scene.

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