By Andria Kades
Plans for an overhaul of the bus system have been put on hold as those who lost out in the tender process wait to see whether their objections to the winning bids will be upheld by the court.
Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides has described the current bus system as “appalling” and estimated that by the time the 10-year contracts are set to expire next year, it will have cost the taxpayer some €500m.
As it stands, every district has its own bus company which were awarded contracts in 2010. News of drivers striking or threatening to strike over delays in wage payments are not uncommon and have often resulted in the government stepping in to mediate.
In light of the upcoming end of the current contracts, the government called for new tenders, and on November 29 the transport ministry announced that a consortium between Malta Lines and Kapnos Airport Shuttle Ltd (MLKP) had won the contracts for public transport services for the districts of Nicosia, Larnaca, Famagusta and the intercity routes.
The fate of Limassol and Paphos remains to be decided as no company won the tender.
Nonetheless, it did not take long before four appeals were filed. Nicosia company Osel filed two, one for its current district and one for Larnaca, while another appeal was filed by Famagusta bus company Osea and Intercity.
A hearing is expected to take place on December 23. In the meantime, an interim order has been issued, barring the government from signing the new contracts until a court decision.
Panicos Amirayias, a spokesman for Osea said the tenders were “a blatant illegality and effective destruction for current administrators”.
Although it is inevitably the nature of a contract that it comes to an end, Amirayias said they were led to believe back in 2010 when they first signed, that they may even have a five-year extension. Without getting a new contract, this effectively puts an end to all their work that started, in the case of Osea long before the current company was even born.
“Our fathers had buses 30 years ago, we’ve been doing this now for years too…we will not be able to continue operations.”
Osea is also a majority shareholder in Intercity buses and the spokesman said “we operated the two companies meritocratically, offered good service and yet no one is judging that. They are only judging the numbers.”
Amirayias said the reasons they have to appeal the ministry decision will be heard during court but hinted that the way the tenders were written were made to suit the offer from the Kapnos consortium.
Pambos Kapnos, spokesman for MLKP told the Sunday Mail the tender was Europe-wide and the facts are that the consortium submitted the most financially beneficial offer.
“There is nothing favourable here, the procedure was open to everyone.”
Indeed Amirayia himself conceded that “other companies had lower bids” though he did not wish to disclose the amount, nor did Kapnos. Reports suggest the bids ranged from €800 million to €1.2 billion
Kapnos outlined the appeals came as no surprise but said the case will take its course.
A few days before the contracts were awarded however, eight buses, part of a new fleet which belonged to Kapnos company were torched. Currently, Kapnos has a fleet of 150 buses and 13 new ones were imported, he said.
A police investigation is ongoing however “the reasons this was done appear to be obvious. If on Sunday the buses are torched and a few days later the decision for the tender is announced, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
“It is a tremendous shame. These are tenders from the government and it is unacceptable to burn property.”
Kapnos specified the 13 buses are for the use of the company’s current operations and the plan was that should they win the tender, they could be used for the new purpose too.
Should the contracts be signed, Kapnos will have to order a fleet of 300 buses, but if operations begin as planned in July 2020, the deadline for ordering them must be made by May. Delays with the appeal may cause problems to this effect but Kapnos said he was hopeful there would be no major ones.
He also outlined that the staff currently employed in the bus companies of the districts his consortium has won the tender for, will have their jobs secured.
According to newly appointed Transport Minister Yiannis Karousos, as far as the tender process is concerned, he expects court to issue a decision on the appeal in January. On the question of the fate of Limassol and Paphos where no tender was awarded, a decision will be made by the ministry soon, he said.
“Every person has the right to appeal a decision…we believe the ministry was right with its decision (on who to award the tenders to). The court will decide.”
But what really is the root of the problem that has caused drivers to strike and the ministry to state a year ago that they would claim back money they had overpaid the bus companies? More importantly, will these be averted with the new contracts?
Karousos diplomatically said that the focus should be on the future and that the new contracts aim to improve the technology of the bus and “tackle these (existing) problems” though he did not wish to go into detail, citing the ongoing court case.
Strikes were most frequently observed in Nicosia, as well as Limassol, Paphos and Larnaca.
Most forthcoming of all was Osea’s spokesman Amirayias who suggested that the procedure to set up the current bus system from 2010 was way too rushed and one of the consequences of this was differences in how the contracts were interpreted between the companies and ministry.
The bus companies are also administrators of public funds, Amirayias stipulated and therefore need to be “honourable, honest and do their job properly. I believe we (Osea) did this 100 per cent.”
“One reason there were problems is that the government overpaid. After they realised they had done that, they would claim back the money and this would cause other problems.”
The tender for the new contracts, according to Amirayia, puts more pressure on the companies with far more stringent rules as to how much each company could claim in funds.
“Alexandros Taliotis, operations manager of Osypa in Paphos said they would wait for the ministry to announce a decision on the fate of Limassol and Paphos which were not awarded a tender.”
Although Taliotis did not wish to enter into a detailed discussion into the problems of the past, he told the Sunday Mail the tenders for the new contracts do have some differences in how they will operate as well as a technological upgrade, which would improve efficiency.
Nicosia bus company Osel informed the newspaper they did not wish to comment in light of the ongoing case filed at court, while Limassol company Emel and Larnaca’s Zenon were not immediately available for comment.