Epitaph in memory of a monorail dream

Transport Malta studies show that commuters waste at least 30 minutes a day being blocked in traffic

Nobody can in reality dispute that the nation’s productivity trajectory depends on having an efficient road infrastructure. Studies undertaken by Transport Malta show that commuters waste at least 30 minutes daily of productive work or social quality time being blocked in traffic.

A tangible improvement in daily commuting will stimulate the much desired increase in female labour participation as parents can reliably plan the daily commute of their children to school/kindergartens rather than having to drive them back and forth individually. Otherwise, in our hectic life, few stop and contemplate how the proliferation of traffic is the result of acquired affluence by householders who are finding good jobs and have a higher propensity to spend on entertainment, food, mobile telephony, travel and of course are tempted to buy an extra (almost brand new) imported Japanese car.

The Opposition disagrees, lamenting that the perceived affluence is paper thin and wealth distribution is not equitable. A PN spokesman said poverty traps are everywhere and any improvement in the general standard of living is not percolating down to grassroots level, so not all families share the hype and rhetoric of wellness pronounced by PL apologists.

In a recent statement, the Opposition expressed distrust of such good tidings, declaring “it’s useless for the prime minister to boast about the numbers when it is only the chosen few who can enjoy the positive performance of the economy”. Yet the writing is on the wall that the economy is on the mend as Eurostat figures show the island had the second lowest unemployment rate in the EU, at 5.1% (reaching a low of 3,700 persons). At this point the Opposition sees red and lambasts the government that such improvement in the jobs market is misleading since it reckons this is partly due to a massive intake of state employees.

Leaving the debate about the true effect of affluence, one cannot but agree that the traffic problem is an acute one. Perhaps it is a bit too late that we read about a number of options proposed by the transport ministry – such as building an underground rail system or linking Sliema to Valetta to Cottonera by sea by boring a tunnel through Valletta and using fast ferry boats.

Building super highways is frequently mooted as a partial solution in traffic nodes where excessive blockage occurs and one hopes that shortly we will see the commencement of the building of both Marsa and Kappara flyovers. All these solutions come with a heavy price tag and sadly the construction may take years and in the meantime more congestion builds up.

It is a Catch 22 dilemma yet party apologists inform us that we can qualify for assistance under the European Fund for Strategic Investments. Such a fund is expected within three years to inject €315 billion in development projects aimed to generate a revival in the EU economies. In fact, last year MaltaToday reported that a monorail system was the focal point of studies conducted by a task force headed by financial services expert Alfred Mifsud (later appointed deputy Central bank governor).

He said: “Being an island State on the periphery of Europe, Malta does not share hard borders with other EU states and is disadvantaged both by its insularity and by the inability to coordinate with other member states for cross-border projects.”

The Opposition leader has also put in his comments, based on a 35-page document entitled ‘Reducing Traffic Congestion – Short term measures’. The document was recently presented by shadow transport minister Marthese Portelli at the PN’s general conference.

In his introduction to the document, the PN leader argues that the explosion of private transport between 1987 and 2013 is “an excellent indication” of the economy’s development over the past decades – under the PN “golden 25 years” of almost uninterrupted governance.

Back to the task force led by Alfred Mifsud, it claims that the monorail will be the “ultimate solution” for urban mobility. Plans for the construction of the monorail project involve both overground and underground lines running North-South and West-East, intersecting at key traffic junctions and feeding at its various stops into other above-ground public transport means. The estimated cost of the 70km service line will be €1.42 billion, and when functional this is expected to revolutionize mass transit – infusing a cataclysmic change.

A modern system is the Maglev (pictured above) which uses an advanced technology in which magnetic forces lift, propel, and guide a vehicle over a guide-way. Therefore, in this system it is more silent as there are no wheels touching the track surface. The train “floats” instead of rolling on the guide-ways. Monorail adherents claim it can solve current congestion problems, such as daily commuting of school children, and can ease the pain of early morning commuters who drive to work but find traffic is in a gridlock at all busy nodes.

Reading the details published in the study it remarks that the monorail can take place in four phases, each involving a duration of 24 months so that the first phase will be completed by end 2018 (which happens to coincide with the festivities marking Valletta as the cultural city in Europe). The final phase will be ready within eight years.

Consideration will be given to re-use of the rails and tunnels of the old railway system running from Valletta to Mdina, which started in 1882 and was mothballed in 1931 when private car transport rendered train service superfluous. Funding was planned to come to 50% from EU-EIB funds as co-finance with equity and mezzanine finance, while the rest will be funded by the private sector.

As expected, environmentalists oppose the monorail project, saying our narrow streets cannot accommodate such a monstrous rail system, which would be expected to travel at speed on overhead pylons. Equally vociferous will be those who live in villas facing the street where the monorail travels, complaining of noise and intrusion in their privacy.

Fancy sitting upstairs with windows open for fresh air when monorail carriages speed across with passengers waving at you.

If ever the monorail facility becomes a reality, critics predict it will be another White Elephant. Not really – as studies show that the monorail can prove to  be the “ultimate solution” for urban mobility and be self financing. Ideally it will intersect at a core traffic junction, with various stops feeding into other over-ground public transport, and it can  drastically diminish carbon dioxide emissions.

Our dream was shattered when it was revealed (quite obliquely) that the application for EU/EIB funding was refused. While the traffic problem is unsolved, with no specific plans to uproot it, the government blows its trumpets saying families can boast of a higher quality of living, not to mention capital projects such as the opening of a new Oncology hospital, the massive Chinese investment in EneMalta, the popularity of the Individual Investor Programme, projects like Bart’s Medical University, the new hospital and ITS at Smart City, the American Higher Institution of Malta in Zonqor, the restructuring of Air Malta, privatisation of the White Rocks complex and the magnificent dream of 14 new tower blocks to be erected in the Sliema/St Julian's area.

Combine  all these with record arrivals of tourists and an increase in the number of cruise liners, and the future beckons. Alas, the dream of a monorail has been shattered as for the time being, its implementation is not possible.

George M. Mangion is a senior partner of PKF, an audit and consultancy firm, and has over 25 years’ experience in accounting, taxation, financial and consultancy services