By Annette Chrysostomou
Cyprus has been pledged a revolution in public transport, but it is proving extraordinarily difficult.
On July 5, a brand new fleet of buses started operating in Larnaca and Nicosia by the newly formed Cyprus Public Transport (CPT). The contract is valid until 2030 and the company is promising a complete change in the way buses work, namely, the public will finally start using them.
The challenges are significant. Tortuous legal challenges have meant the CPT at present is only operating two of the four bus companies it had bid for. Cyprus has six in total, but one company can only control four.
Working practices within a company that took on the drivers from its predecessors is another challenge, and calling on the public for patience as the company unrolls its grandiose plans is yet another. Concerns about safety have also been raised.
“We are about to bring about a complete change, but we need some time,” CPT CEO Julio Tironi told the Sunday Mail. “This is a complex process.”
The history of public bus transport has been problematic since an earlier supposed overhaul in 2010, with huge buses largely running nearly empty, endless disputes about how they should operate and numerous strikes and protests by the companies operating them. The CPT promises to change all that.
The idea is to overhaul the whole system, starting with Nicosia. The now nearly empty buses will soon be a thing of the past as the whole project is linked to the Nicosia mobility plan, which envisages Makarios avenue and other central roads in the capital as one-way streets with bus lanes in an attempt to get people out of their cars and into buses, while cycling is also encouraged.
“We are using buses in different sizes. Some of them are nearly empty now but this is only this year,” Tironi said. “The tender is part of a revolution of public transport. Without the mobility plan public transport cannot increase.”
Plans are to tempt non-users by the sophisticated technology the company has.
“For example, non-users who are not used to the service will have the ability to plan a whole trip to a destination, including the use of several modes of transport such as bicycles and scooters, with all the details on an app. You can even pay for the whole trip on the app.” All buses have wifi and are equipped for USB use.
This is not happening just yet, as setting it all up will take a bit of time.
To start with, the company has had to deal with internal structures, such as the training of 500 employees they have taken over from the bus companies which operated from 2010 until now.
“It cannot happen in a week, we ask for a bit of patience from the public,” Tironi said. “Five hundred human beings have their own problems which need to be addressed. For 10 years these people have been used to a way of working, it cannot be changed overnight.”
He said by way of example that a recent strike by members of Peo union two weeks ago came as complete surprise.
“They didn’t announce the protest to anybody, not us, not the government, and we are in the middle of negotiations,” he complained.
The union had said they staged the work protest because drivers were asked to work from early morning until late at night without having a place to rest.
Only when such internal problems are solved, which is expected by late October or early November, can the new company move to make the promised changes to the network he said.
The new launch got off to a difficult start. Just a week after the new buses arrived, a 52-year-old driver was crushed by his bus after he reportedly failed to engage the handbrake. Two other buses – luckily without drivers or passengers – which were supposed to be immobilised started moving.
An investigation by the transport ministry was completed last Monday and confirmed the company and its fleet of vehicles passed all safety checks.
In the past three weeks, the company said, four training seminars were completed, covering 100 per cent of drivers.
Tironi also commented on concerns that most of its buses come from China, which has prompted questions about their quality. He said only one factory in China assembles vital parts such as the engines, all of which are produced in Europe and the US. Another company assembling the parts is located in Germany, he added.
Above all this is a bewilderingly complex unresolved legal case CPT has which encompasses all four of the other bus companies. Under Cyprus law, CPT could only win four of the original six bus companies. Two it already has, but it has gone for all of the remaining four in the hope that it can win two of them.
These are: Osea in Famagusta and affiliated Intercity, Osypa in Paphos and Emel in Limassol.
CPT is in a legal process regarding the Famagusta services, and, as its CEO said, it is not sure when this will be solved.
If the licences for Osea and Intercity are not given to the Cyprus Public Transport company, it will reapply for the tenders of Limassol’s Emel and Paphos’ Osypa, both of which were reported to launch new tenders at the end of June, but have not yet done so.
“We have part of the fleet ready to be shipped to Cyprus for both scenarios,” Tironi explained.
It remains to be seen how this will play out, but the new company has been given a boost this week, when the cabinet approved the installation of thousands of new bus stops and bus shelters, a project estimated at €35 million.
The transport ministry said the goal is to provide improved and increased service to public transport users, and shelters will provide the necessary information, and will be “uniform, ergonomic, green and autonomous”.
A total of 4,962 bus stops will either be installed or upgraded island wide. The construction of 2,015 new bus stops, 1,688 shelters and the upgrade of 1,259 is planned, something that is estimated to be completed within five years at an annual cost of €7 million.
Problems with the bus concessions date back to the last supposed bus system shake-up which started in September 2009. At the time, the tenders theoretically gave third parties the right to submit expressions of interest. They were not permitted to become primary contractors but only to participate in a joint venture.
As a result, no third parties came forward, leaving only the then-current bus companies – who had cornered the market – as the only bidders.
This, the auditor-general noted this year, effectively amounted to a no-bid contract situation. What’s more, the bus companies at the time were never summoned to submit a financial offer, meaning that the financial terms of the concession ended up being hammered out during the negotiating phase with the contracting authority – the transport ministry.
The tenders for the latest system have only been legally resolved for two of six services, for Nicosia and Larnaca.
These were previously served by Osel and Zenon bus companies.
In January, the administrative court upheld a prior decision by the government to award the contract for the running of Nicosia bus services, dismissing action brought against that decision by Osel, the holder of the concession since 2010.
The finding effectively meant the transport ministry was able to finalise the contract with the winner of the tender which was then the Malta Lines Ltd and Kapnos Airport Shuttle Ltd MLKP consortium, now CPT.
The other cases relate to similar actions filed – likewise by the then current concessionaires – against the new contracts awarded to the new companies for the Larnaca, Famagusta and intercity bus routes.
In April and May, the Larnaca Zenon bus company called on the government to cancel the tender procedure for the new public transport contract for the town citing irregularities in the applications of the successful tender.
The government decided to uphold the tender.