Public transport in Tirana, amid countless problems, and the effort to solve them through the import of used hybrid buses

In these November days with unusual temperatures and overcrowding in a city like Tirana, which is reaching nearly 1 million inhabitants, urban movement has become a challenge. The use of public, urban transport is a necessary choice every day for an average of 200,000 citizens. This challenge has been further aggravated recently, not only by the delay and overcrowding of the service due to the pandemic and various excuses issued by the operators of these lines, but also by the threat of halving of the service, announced on October 18, 2021, by the Public Transport Union, a serious threat to the system that has recently found a temporal solution.

The Municipality of Tirana data shows that, among the persons who use public transport, 64.7% of them travel with a ticket and a smaller part use subscription services of monthly payments, booklets or other documents recognized by the authorities.

 

 

DATA OF THE MUNICIPALITY OF TIRANA FOR URBAN TRANSPORT

 

Operators 11
Rout Lines 15+1 ((Green line-not functional)
Means 311
Tickets 40 all
Working Hours 6:00-23:00
Stations 451
Waiting time 3-5 minutes (on average)

 

Information provided by the OpenData portal of the Municipality of Tirana

With the increase of the ticket price for public, urban transport from 30 to 40 ALL, in January 2016, the Municipality of Tirana promised to increase the quality of service to citizens, by tightening the obligations and measures towards the service providers. “We will make sure that for every violation there is a fine, until the license is revoked”, – said among others the vice mayor, Arbjan Mazniku. Following this decision, the Municipality of Tirana issued a series of orders to guarantee the quality and safety of urban service in the city.

Order no. 27458, dated 13.09.2016, of the Municipality of Tirana on “Monitoring, inspection, reporting and evaluation of performance in the public service of urban passenger transport and implementation of measures for violation of the contract of public transport service”, supplemented by orders corresponding to each urban line, clearly defines the obligations of the contractors that provide the urban transport service in the capital, starting from the service schedules, to their frequency, itineraries or stations. The same order entrusts the Directorate of Road Traffic Transport, the Center for Registration and Licensing, the Agency for Consumer Protection and the Municipal Police for its implementation.

The orders also determine the penalties for operators, from the removal of points, to the revocation of the license, if they violate the basic conditions of service such as: non-compliance with the route, frequency, non-compliance with sales of season tickets, non-use of air conditioners; non-installation of GPS systems on the bus, systems for people with disabilities (ramps and reserved seats), but which rarely have been applied on the operators of these lines, the most recent case being on the Unaza line, operated by the company Ferlut Sh.a.

Who “moves around” Tirana?

Currently, in Tirana there are 15 bus lines, not including the Green Line, which, even after the conclusion of the contract between the Municipality of Tirana and the operator, was not made available to the public at any time. These lines are operated by 11 companies. Ferlut Sh. A., was the operator providing urban service on the Unaza line. On September 13, 2021, the municipality revoked the company’s license “after numerous abuses, denounced by the line users”, as explained by the mayor, Erion Veliaj.

With the revocation of this license, this urban line is temporarily being covered by the company Gerard-A Sh. P. K., with vehicles, which had been destined to be used on the Green Line (L16).

But, which are the companies that operate in the urban market of Tirana?

Tirana Bus Sh. P. K., manages the line from the former train station to TEG; City Trans, that of Kashar; Shega-Trans Sh. P. K., Tufina lines and Kombinat-Kinostudio; Diamond Society Sh. P. K., Selita-Allias line; Alba Trans Sh. A., the line of Tirana e Re and the line of the former Tractor Factory-Kamza Institute; Tirana Travel Sh. P. K., Dinamo-Sharra Plant line; TEG line-train station is operated by Mag Utilities Sh. P. K; Tirana Lines Sh. P. K., manages the line Institut-former Kombinat of Autotractors and Lapraka and Gerard Sh. P. K., New Maternity-Center, while Tirana Urban Trans, that of Porcelan.

The company Gerard Sh. P. K., in addition to the transport lines from the maternity to the city center and the Student City – Jordan Misja, also indirectly manages the Kashar line, as the sole owner of Gerard-A Sh. P. K., is also the sole owner in the other company, which provides urban transport services, City Trans-A Sh. P. K., which administers the Kashar line.

At the same time, from a simple research of the Open Procurement website, it appears that the only partner of these two companies, through the latter, but also other companies, has benefited from the Municipality of Tirana 14 other public tenders, 6 of which defined with a red flag by Open Data.

The centralization of the urban transport service in the hands of a few operators, with 4 lines out of 15 already in the hands of one de facto operator, can lead to a reduction in the quality of service and violation for the rights of citizens. However, the expert Rixhin Qosja thinks that everything depends on the opportunities and conditions offered by the operators and in the situation created by COVID-19 and the fuel crisis, the requests expressed by the companies operating in public transport must be accepted in order that the quality of passenger service also increases. Recently, the associations have requested the reduction of VAT from 20% to 6%, as well as the abolition of excise duty on oil and a series of other requests, requests that were accepted by the Municipality of Tirana on October 25, 2021.

Furthermore, according to Mr. Qosja, it is also necessary to build lanes dedicated to public transport, so that this transport is fast and proper. “City municipalities must build lanes dedicated to public transport and every detail that has to do with public transport infrastructure. For all the poverty-stricken citizens , who do not pay the transport ticket, no compensation has ever been made against the operators,” he explained. He further states that “the requests sent, both before and during the pandemic, need to be heard, which are mainly related to the financial effects. These requests have been sent to the central government, as it is competent to fulfill them “.

The bus already left … Urban lines, without fixed schedules and with long waiting times in the service

M., uses the line of Tirana e Re on a daily basis, to go to work. She says that unlike years ago, when she waited at the station for 7-10 minutes, now the bus delay time exceeds another 20 minutes. “Now that we are in a pandemic situation, the masks are not put on and the billing or control does not require accountability for this part, as they themselves do not have. They stay at Kastrati station for more than 3 minutes. The bus often drives slowly, even when the road is free. As for the air conditioner, they do not put it on. Even for the part of cleanliness, tickets are usually seen on the ground and the air does not circulate properly”, – she says. This situation witnessed by A.M., is observed in other urban lines of the city as well.

Chapter V of the regulation of the municipality for monitoring the quality of public transport service, for these violations listed by this citizen, provides from fines to revocation of the license, but until today there have been few cases when the Municipality of Tirana has campaigned for the implementation of these rules, with the urban user suffering from these violations.

The data included in the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan of the Municipality of Tirana shows another frequency of urban service. According to the data presented in February 2020 by the Municipality of Tirana, the planned frequency of service varies from 3 to 15 minutes between lines, although there are no schedules available to control changes in peak and off-peak times.

Now that the buses are halved, the waiting time at the station exceeds 30 minutes, but even before the waiting time ranged from 10-20 minutes.

This research states and tacitly admits another violation of the companies that provide urban service, that of lack of security cameras, a contractual obligation, provided in all contracts concluded by the Municipality of Tirana with various operators in the city. Of the 411 buses circulating in the capital, according to the report itself, only 62 buses are equipped with security cameras.

Even a study conducted by Porta Vendore on the bus service, concludes that it does not have the propper standards of service. Some of the conclusions of the study are: The waiting time for the bus varies based on the line from 3.3 minutes to 38.3 minutes; the cleanliness of the buses is generally 2.4, i.e. less than the middle of the scale; in 58% of cases the air conditioner does not turn on; even when turned on, in 8% of cases it does not work.

Covid -19, social distancing and in-service experiments

The resumption of urban transport began after 115 days of closure, on July 6, 2020. This resumption created the need for the implementation of special measures against Covid-19, drafted by the Ministry of Health. The implementation of these measures led to the need of reaching an agreement between the transport companies and the Municipality of Tirana, at the core of which was the fact that in case of violation of these protocols, the responsibility would be individual of the passengers, and not the operators. The resumption of urban transport was accompanied by the need to meet certain obligations as an integral part of the protocol against the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is enough to use one of the bus lines to understand that the rules, such as the mandatory use of masks or social distancing, are not observed even though these rules are still in force.

The Dinamo-Sharra Line bus station (no one uses masks)

Another problematic issue, observed during the use of urban transport for the purpose of writing this article, is the ambient temperature on buses during the summer months. The orders of the Municipality of Tirana define a series of very little applied rules, such as the standard temperature inside the vehicles, between 15-22 degrees Celsius, but in reality, it remains a rule in its entirety not implemented by most operators, as long as most urban transport vehicles are unconditioned or they rarely turn it on. This situation becomes even more difficult in the summer months, where in a state of ongoing pandemic, overcrowding of urban buses at extremely high temperatures becomes a danger to users.

As if all the difficulties faced by the citizens traveling by bus were not enough, in May of this year they were informed of an unannounced decision, that of the suspension of the general subscription tickets until September, in order to conduct a study to improve the service in urban transport. The decision, which was met with protests by citizens, was withdrawn a month later and from July 1, general subscription tickets are circulating in the market again. The Municipality of Tirana said that it has completed the study, but it has not been made public, until the moment of publication of this article.

Failure to monitor buses via GPS

In February 2017, the Municipality of Tirana promised to install a GPS system on buses, in order to inform passengers about their location. “The frequency of their traffic will be monitored with GPS and citizens will be informed electronically about the location of the bus and its schedules, not only at stations, but also by phone through the application My Tirana”,said at the time the Mayor, Erion Veliaj.

SIT systems in the UK, which inform travelers about the frequency of service (Up – photo of the modern system, Down – photo of the system in use for 2 decades)

The establishment of such a system is also foreseen in the decisions of the Municipal Council, the orders of the municipality on monitoring, inspection, reporting and evaluation of performance in the public service of urban passenger transport, as well as the standard contracts in use by the Municipality of Tirana for the issuance of licenses for the development of this activity by various service providers.

Article 8 of these contracts provides that the use of GPS or SIT systems for public passenger transport service aims to improve the management capacity of public transport through the definition of service schedules, vehicles in service, speed of movement and other elements, which help in the service system. Meanwhile, the same contractual obligations for setting up the GPS system are translated into the SIT system, a function of which is to notify passengers on the bus and station about the time left until the next station, as well as for passengers at the station on the status of incoming buses near the station, successor lines and real time of each vehicle, through LED signs at stations and inside buses.

Both of these systems, despite the envisioning of their setup within a period of 5 years and more than enough time for their implementation, have been neglected by all current operators in the urban transport system, but also by the Municipality of Tirana, which together with these two systems has failed in the implementation of the electronic ticket system as well. Only in August 2021, Mayor Veliaj acknowledged that the GPS system will now begin to function in monitoring the functioning of the urban transport service, despite the fact that the legal obligations for the municipality and for urban line operators have been for more than half a decade in force.

Despite the promise of 2017, no electric bus in Tirana

 In 2017, the mayor, Erion Veliaj, proposed an even more ambitious project, that of electric buses. On October 26th 2017, the first electric bus was tested in Tirana, where the mayor said that a public transport company would be established, if they were left unanswered by private operators. On May 9th 2019, after a series of promises to reduce pollution, Veliaj said that electric transportation would be at the focus of his second term, and 5 months later he stated that the Municipality of Tirana was waiting for electric buses.

But where are the electric buses?

Through an official response, the Municipality of Tirana told the Center for Quality Journalism that currently there is no electric bus in Tirana. “Currently, public transport operators do not have 100% electric vehicles (buses) in their fleet. Currently, line number 16, Green Line, is the only line in public transport in the city that owns a hybrid fleet (22 hybrid vehicles)”, – explains the Municipality of Tirana in the answer given on August 13, 2021.

According to the response of the Municipality of Tirana on electric buses, in October 2017, the Municipality of Tirana cooperated with the foreign company Solaris to test an electric bus. The projects were supposed to start earlier, but due to the pandemic they have been postponed.

Germany gave 50 million euros for green transport in Tirana, but …

 The Municipality of Tirana in the Plan of Sustainable Urban Mobility in 2017, to reduce emissions from public transport vehicles, launched an initiative called the Green Line. “In order to allow the passage of electric vehicles for the entire bus fleet, several studies and assessments are being carried out. One of them consists of testing a bus, Solaris Urbino, along the circular public transport line,” – the document reads.

In January 2018, the municipality announced that the Green Line would be added to Tirana, which would cross the area from the building with arrows, passing on Bajram Curri Boulevard, to Brryli; turn on Arkitekt Kasemi Street, continue on Bardhyl Street and turn right on Kongresi i Manastirit Street; then return to Imer Ndregjoni Street in the Chimney area. The Municipal Council took the decision to add the line on January 31st 2018. This decision was echoed even more widely by the mayor at the conference Territorial Cooperation, a new perspective for promoting integration, with the presence of the Ambassador of the EU Delegation to Albania, in which the latter promised that public transport would be electrified within the year.

Decision of the Municipal Council (in Albanian)

But, in fact, the winning company to provide this service, was announced two years later, on July 3rd 2020. Asked about the model and operation of this line, as well as the buses that will be used, the Municipality of Tirana told the Center for Quality Journalism that the buses that will be used are the property of the company that has won the licensing right, buses of the brands: Solaris, Man, Volvo, Hess, Evobus, Van Hool.

On May 6 this year, the German Embassy in Tirana announced the launch of the Ecological Transport project in Tirana; a German government-funded project with 50 million euros through KfW and a loan to the Municipality of Tirana, which, according to the report submitted to parliament together with the law approving this agreement, is expected to have a direct impact on improving the standards of living and mobility of passengers using public / urban transport in the territory of the Municipality of Tirana.

It is unclear whether the Green Line, which is currently non-functional but whose vehicles are replacing Ferlut’s vehicles covering the Unaza line, is part of this initiative or not, as long as the terms electric and hybrid are used continuously and in interchangeably with each other by the municipality. The only information available to the public is the introduction of this line and its vehicles as a green alternative of public transport with new buses, which adapt to today’s needs for a clean environment. The mayor also justified the delay in introducing this line with the old technology, which made it impossible for electric and hybrid buses to be efficient, but with the introduction of new technologies this hurdle has been overcome.

Data on the chassis number and year of production of some of the buses in use in the GoGreen line

However the reality is different. Monitored in their operation as replacement buses for the Unaza line, the Go Green line buses were found to be products of 2007 (Mercedes Benz), 2009 (Van Hool), 2010 (Hess) and 2013 (Volvo), all buses with almost even more than a decade of work in the respective countries from which they are imported, such as The Hague in the Netherlands, Hamburg in Germany and Lier in Belgium. This was also accepted by the driver of one of these buses, who anonymously told the ACQJ that “These buses have closed their life cycle there and are then recycled here, so to speak”.

A simple internet search proves the value of these vehicles, which can be purchased online for less than the value of a used sedan. The request for comment of the author of the article on the findings during the monitoring of the service on these buses and the municipality’s promises for efficient and green buses, was met with silence by the Press Office of the Municipality of Tirana, the latter suggesting we submit a request for information to this institution.

Currently, the new, electric and hybrid buses of the new line, Go Green, still remain in function of the Unisa line as a replacement of a line, which the Municipality of Tirana revoked the license, without anticipating the effects on urban traffic in the absence of replacement operators.