They’ve come in all shapes and sizes – at one point even in all colours – and have ferried hundreds of thousands of people across Malta and Gozo in the past century. The Maltese buses are the longest-surviving local means of mass transportation and, this October, they are set to become even more popular as the service becomes free for anyone with a Tallinja card. From the first attempts at setting up a route bus from Valletta to Sliema, to the launch of driverless buses, Sarah Carabott maps out the life journey of buses in Malta.
A first attempt
The Valletta to Sliema service, started by the ET Agius company, lasted just one year as theroads were bumpy, numerous ferries already operated between the two localities and horse-drawn taxis were still very popular.
From ambulance to bus
The Cottonera Motor Car Company launched several bus routes making use of the military vehicles and motor ambulances that had been left here by the Allies after World War I. The CMCC vehicles had all been ambulances with the Australian military. Local craftsmen set about stripping these vehicles of their body and building wooden frame bus bodies on their chassis to accommodate between 12 and 16 seated passengers.
The mass chassis importation
Along with the chassis, Maltese emigrants also started returning to their home country richer than they left it and started investing in the local bus industry. Interestingly, this is also the decade that marked the beginning of disputes within the industry: some disagreement led to the dismissal of all drivers, but the owners had to rehire them all over again as they could not run the business without them.
600 buses on Maltese roads
By now, the Malta railway and the tram had been phased out, and the popularity of the buses took off. The government had to freeze the issuing of new licences and for the next 70 years, new buses could only be launched on the streets to replace old ones.
Here to stay
Within the first year of the decade, the authorities realised that buses were here to stay, and the Traffic Control Board was set up to formalise routes, stops, fares and the colourful liveries.
1931 to 1973
The colourful Maltese buses
For 40 years, the bus system operated on some dozen different village/town routes, and each particular route had its own livery. These liveries are what probably set off a huge following from overseas bus lovers and history buffs. In 1973, the government merged everything into three groups with just three of the old liveries. This lasted until 1975 when all the buses turned green.
Late 1970s to early 1980s
The striking buses
These were turbulent times, not just politically, socially and economically. In the history of Maltese buses, they will be remembered for some of the industry’s biggest strikes, with the events marked by reports of gunshots at replacement buses provided by the government.
1980s and 1990s
The island of the lively buses
With tourism picking up by the end of the 1980s and 1990s, and the island being advertised for its sun, sea and sand, the quirky buses soon became a pull magnet for curious tourists. Some still recall the bumpy rides on the vintage Maltese buses, each with its own unique design, made even quirkier by the owner or driver’s additional decorations, such as a niche hosting religious figures, built around the driving cabin.
A colour change
The buses changed colour again in 1995 when the green and white was replaced with a yellow and livery to which an orange band was added. This was based on the old Zebbug-Siggiewi livery that had been replaced in 1973.
Strikes bring the island to a halt
Striking picked up again in the new millennium, with one memorable strike seeing a convoy of buses driving along the Sliema promenade, blaring horns just a couple of years before the takeover of Arriva in 2011.
2011, July 3
Major restructuring of the bus service, with Arriva taking over. Most localities now had a direct link to Valletta or other main hubs such as the Marsa and Pembroke park-and-ride. All buses were now low-floor and wider, making commuting for people with mobility issues much easier. However, the overnight overhaul was chaotic at several hotspots, and there were several reports of delays in the initial weeks. By November, Arriva deployed more buses to deal with the increased demand. Some of the buses were repainted or fitted out with air conditioning and Euro V engines.
Immortalised: the ‘Maltese’ bus driver
A pack of trump cards was launched as a comic tribute to the now classical era of Maltese buses and their owner drivers. The 32-card Bus Bosses Tribute Card Game concept started out as a group project in 2010 during the final year of a graphic design and interactive media degree course at the university.
2011 to 2012
Farewell London, hello Malta
While London mayor Boris Johnson described bendy buses as “cumbersome machines” which encouraged fare dodgers, Malta expanded its fleet of the notoriously bulky vehicles. Some commuters thought they were a “godsend” as they rarely left people stranded on bus stops, but car drivers stuck behind a bendy bus trying to negotiate a narrow bend were not so happy about the whole thing. They were eventually phased out but will forever be remembered for their spontaneous combustion.
2015, January 8
Autobuses de Leon officially takes over the bus service in Malta retaining the name Malta Public Transport. That year it received a subsidy of €23 million.
To the relief of bus drivers and commuters, the concept of contactless cards was finally introduced in Malta, cutting down waiting time at each bus stop as drivers no longer had to look for the correct change for each and every passenger.
That same year, Heritage Malta offered 45 of the famous yellow buses it salvaged when Arriva took over, to people interested in purchasing a piece of the island’s transport history.
Then transport minister Ian Borg announced that Malta’s roads were set to get a touch of futurism with a pilot project that would put self-driving buses on the streets. In a Facebook post, Borg had said the pilot project would be operating four routes: between the University of Malta and Mater Dei Hospital, in Republic Street Valletta, around the Ta Qali family park and between Smart City and Esplora.
Will buses become even more popular?
This month, transport will become free for residents and holders of the Tallinja card, with the transport watchdog predicting the move will increase passenger numbers to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. The number of people travelling by bus reached its highest point in 2019 but COVID-19 then changed traveller behaviour, the government’s transport regulator said in answer to questions.
Where did the vintage buses go?
Some continued ferrying people around the island, mainly sightseeing tourists, while one was turned into a souvenir shop at the Sliema Ferries.
Another bus, built in the 1970s and brought over in the 1980s retired in a Xlendi garden as a camper.
Still one other – MHY 011- took part in the UK’s 2012 Olympic Games torch relay.
And another bus – although a more recent, low-floor one, was turned into a playground.
Special thanks to Richard Stedall, who in 2018 launched the Malta Bus Archive within the National Archives of Malta and features in the online depository aptly called Memorja.