Trains, trams and automobiles

It’s not just our public transport options that have dwindled to almost nothing in the past 100 years. We seem to have also lost all sense of ingenuity and resourcefulness… not to mention ‘entrepreneurship’, for which Malta enjoys a (seemingly undeserved) reputation

One of the things that has consistently fascinated me about public transport in Malta, is the way it seems to have gone into reverse gear over the last century.

In 1905,  for instance, Malta had a fully functional railway connecting Valletta to Mdina; concurrently, there was a tramway service linking the capital to the Three Cities, Birkirkara and Zebbug; and ferries regularly plied both Marsamxett and the Grand Harbour, as they had done for centuries (giving rise to the immortal folksong, ‘Lanca Gejja U Ohra Sejra’, etc.).

Meanwhile, the ‘omnibus’ had only just been introduced… just a few years after Henry Ford first popularized mass-production of the motor-vehicle. Malta, it seems, was fully abreast of all the transport technologies of its age. The railway was first introduced in 1883: not particularly early, by steam-engine standards… but certainly at a time when the locomotive was still considered ‘cutting-edge’.

Likewise, the electric tram started operating in 1905 – a lot later than Sarajevo (which built Europe’s first full-time tramway service) – but still around the same time most European capitals were installing theirs.

For whatever reason, then, Malta’s public transport authorities of 100 years ago were infinitely more clued in to international trends than their equivalent institutions seem to be today.

Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that in 1905, the population of Malta was less than 200,000; while the number of private cars on the road stood at the grand total of… one, I believe: a 1904 Siddeley, which became the first registered automobile in Malta (Licence Plate No: 1), in the same year it was manufactured.

Well, fast forward a little more than a century, and you will find that almost all of that diversity has disappeared: except the omnibus, of course (which is now omnipresent); and, interestingly, also the Siddeley: which was discovered intact in a barn in 1968, and has since been put on public display as a curiosity.

But there are no railways, above or below ground; no trams; and only one measly little harbour ferry now runs between Valletta and that part of Sliema we still (erroneously) call the ‘Ferries’ to this day.  

Of Malta’s once diverse and modern public transport landscape, the undisputed sole survivor is the bus service. Only it is no longer exactly ‘cutting edge’, now is it? On the contrary: it is basically the same old service we’ve had for 125 years… just given the occasional make-over now and again.

The only other addition since then has involved a recently-liberalised taxi service. Yep, that’s right: more cars, to add to the buses and the tens of thousands of private vehicles already on the road...

Effectively, then, our country’s entire private and public transport capability (not including the aforementioned ferry service) is limited exclusively to use on the road network. And all this, at a time when the official population is well over 500,000 – rising to over 2 million, including tourists; and possibly even higher, including unregistered and undocumented residents.

Oh, and the number of private vehicles on the road stands at roughly 650 cars per 1,000 inhabitants: the third highest in Europe, and growing steadily year by year.

Then we all scratch our heads, and wonder why traffic congestion has become such a nightmare in this country. I mean, who would have ever predicted that – by removing the only public transport systems which don’t use roads, and only ever investing in the ones that do – our streets would end up literally choking with cars? To the extent that we have to keep building new roads… and then widening them – again, and again, and again – in a futile attempt to keep ahead of an inevitable gridlock?

But then again, that is precisely the part I don’t understand. It’s not just our public transport options that have dwindled to almost nothing in the past 100 years. We seem to have also lost all sense of ingenuity and resourcefulness… not to mention ‘entrepreneurship’, for which Malta enjoys a (seemingly undeserved) reputation.

How else can we explain the fact that we were more far-sighted and forward-looking – even in 1883 – than we are today? Why else were governments and local investors so interested in innovative, advanced technologies like ‘trains’ and ‘tramways’ in the late 19th/early 20th centuries… when, in 2019, they only ever seem interested in motorized transport: which, to start with, already exists anyway; and, what’s more, it is no longer even capable of properly fulfilling its primary function (i.e., moving people around from A to B in the most efficient, expeditious way)?

And yet, since 2018, government is supposed to have been looking into the feasibility of an underground railway connecting Malta to Gozo.

The last we heard of this project was that the ‘studies were at an advanced stage’. But at the same time, Transport Ian Borg has repeatedly shot down the idea at every opportunity: arguing, among other things, that “the population would have to grow substantially” for the metro idea to become feasible; that the costs would ‘run into  the billions’; and that the project would take ‘at least 25 years to complete’.

How did he reach those conclusions, I wonder? It certainly can’t have been from studying the experience of other countries. Cities like Lyons in France and Brescia in Italy both have metro systems catering for populations the same size (or even smaller) than ours; the Brescia one consists of a single 13.7km line, with 17 stops, serviced by 18 trains running at three-minute intervals. Exactly the sort of metro system we’d be looking at here… only it took 10 years to complete (in 2013), at a cost of just under €1 billion.

I’d be interested to know how the Transport Ministry could possibly come up with estimates of at least four times that price-tag, and more than twice the project duration, for a similar system in Malta. Are we talking about trains made of solid platinum, by any chance? Or fuelled by enriched uranium…?

Meanwhile, another thing the Transport Ministry can’t be studying too closely is Malta’s own public transport history. For while the Malta Railway did eventually prove unfeasible – filing for bankruptcy in 1931 – it was only because that the vastly more popular ‘omnibus’ proved it could fulfil its primary function much more efficiently.

The only reason a railway was even considered in Malta, back in the 1880s, was that it would (and did) shorten the Rabat-Valletta trip from three hours – the time it took to do the same trip by horse-drawn carriage – to around 35 minutes.

With the introduction of the motorized vehicle, however, travel time was shortened further still… making the steam-powered locomotive practically redundant. But there was also a reason why buses could make that distance in such a short time around 100 years ago… when they can take anywhere up to five times longer today.

They were practically the only motorized vehicles on the road. Remember? There was only one registered car in Malta in 1905… and probably only a few hundred in 1931. Traffic? Congestion? Rush hour? None of those things even existed, until quite recently.

Today, they’re the things we complain about the most. And they’re also what robs the bus service of its only valid contribution… that of reducing private car usage on Maltese roads.

For while it is true that more people are using the bus than ever before – and I can attest to that, being one of them – it is equally true that traffic is steadily worsening regardless. However quickly the uptake of bus usage grows… car usage continues to grow at a faster rate (small wonder, seeing as we’re introducing around 78 new cars on the road… every single day).

From this perspective, all the factors that had made the railway unviable by 1931 are still present today: with the difference that they are affecting road-using vehicles, instead of track-bound locomotives. It is, quite frankly, impossible to get from A to B either efficiently, or (still less) expeditiously… on a bus that is also contributing to the same traffic congestion that’s slowing it down.

Where does all that leave our national resistance to trains, trams and other alternative modes of transport? Ian Borg’s population argument doesn’t hold; his cost and time estimates are way off-track (ahem). In a nutshell, there is not a single valid reason to continue with this policy of constantly favouring motorized traffic, and more motorized traffic, and ONLY motorized traffic, at the expense of everything else.

So let’s stop objecting to the idea of an underground railway in Malta… and just start digging, shall we? I think I have a shovel in the toolshed somewhere…

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