Metro: ‘Brave new Malta’ or just talk?

Is the metro a dream of a nation coming of age, a construction nightmare in the making, or an exercise in futuristic talk to entertain public opinion before an election, asks James Debono

A high-rise at Pembroke? (C) Metro MT
A high-rise at Pembroke? (C) Metro MT

This article was first published on Sunday, 10 October

A €6 billion metro project drawn up by the German consultancy firm ARUP is being billed as the feasible mass transit public transport system for Malta – excluding other alternatives like tram lines, a hybrid of underground and above-ground lines, or an elevated monorail.

So far, an ‘Options Assessment’ report that led to this conclusion remains unpublished, save for the hint that other options were excluded because of their visual impact, and not to disrupt existing parking and road traffic.

But without publication of the full reports, it is difficult to have a fruitful and informed discussion, says Maria Attard, the head of the university’s Geography Department and director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

“I feel all this is just generating hype and acting as a distraction to what we should be discussing and doing. I am very disappointed that after so much waiting, the studies were not made public. A mega-project of this size cannot happen in a vacuum and requires long term integrated land use and transport planning,” Prof. Attard told MaltaToday.

Apart from the likelihood that the cost mentioned may be conservative – as is “almost always the case for such mega projects” – Prof. Attard says the study seems to be a preliminary one as it does not include geological studies, impact and costs associated with the risks to natural resources and heritage, such as the “water table, natural landscapes, removal of precious green areas, conflict with fortifications and other archaeological remains”; as well as adaptations required due to climate change and the risks of flash flooding or sea level rise.

This leaves experts baffled at why a metro was favoured over other less expensive alternatives, which may be implemented in a shorter time-frame. “I was concerned to see that the consultants consider bus rapid transit and surface trams having a negative visual impact. Isn't a long queue of smoking, noisy cars a negative visual impact? And were alternatives to a €6.2bn project simply dismissed because of the potential of removal of a few parking spaces along a few kilometres of roads? Seriously?” Attard asks.

More towers in Bugibba  (C) Metro MT
More towers in Bugibba (C) Metro MT

Sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino, Malta’s Ambassador for Islands & Small States, and President of the International Small Islands Studies Association, also notes that other small states and islands have opted for a monorail. “The ‘Malta Metro’ is being proposed as an underground initiative; although my own preference is to opt for an aboveground monorail (and thus eliminate most construction waste). For actual and successful examples, look at Mauritius, Singapore and Okinawa, three small island jurisdictions with dense populations like Malta,” Prof. Baldacchino says.

Malta coming of age?

Still, for all those who have been clamouring for a mass transit system for years, the fact that the country is actually discussing a mass transit system leaves room for optimism. Despite the lack of details, this is the nearest we have had for a concrete vision for an overhaul of the public transport system: a fast direct connection which allows commuters to travel from A to B without being stuck in traffic which could well provide an alternative to car use.

Baldacchino represents this sentiment despite his preference for a monorail over the proposed metro. “Unlike public buses, or electric vehicles, or ride-hailing apps (all of which navigate the same streets), this mass transit system will have its own dedicated infrastructure; although such transportation systems will need to exist to complement the metro. Just imagine the relief: finally, no traffic jams; and you can actually plan your journey down to minutes.”

Baldacchino also welcomes the realisation that Malta’s “personal auto mobility paradigm”, that keeps gripping the Maltese islands 100 years since the arrival of the car, has driven the island to the wall. Traffic gridlock, the permanent craving for more parking spaces, the pressure to build new roads and widen existing ones, has reached a limit. “The Maltese government has finally signalled that it has read the message and is willing to have us consider a truly alternative mass transit transport option.”

A Malta metro would configure local transportation “simply being being there”, Baldacchino says. “For those wedded to their private vehicles, they may be reluctant to shift gear: mass transit is ‘mass’, and involves commuting with others. However, the benefits easily outweigh the costs.”

And being also within the realm of fiscal viability, given Malta’s growing population, Baldacchino surmises the metro could actually make Malta an even more attractive as a place to visit, live and work in.

Futuristic Labour testing the waters

Still the non-committal and cautious approach by government ministers suggests the Abela administration is actually testing or entertaining public opinion with no clear plan of action. A prudent approach is understandable: the success of any mass transit system depends on being endorsed and used by the masses.

But throwing one’s eggs in one expensive and all-encompassing basket could also lead to paralysis, raising the question as to whether we are trying to avoid those measures to reduce car dependancy now, in the name of solution in a more distant future?

Prof. Attard cannot understand why we keep avoiding “low-hanging fruits” such as cheaper, more feasible, mass transport options that can be implemented in the short-term. “I cannot simply understand why we keep avoiding these low hanging fruits and promising expensive (if not unsustainable) infrastructures that will take a long time to happen and doing nothing in the meantime to rationalise car use and shift to healthier, more active travel.”

With an election around the corner, ‘futuristic’ plans on a metro seem tailor-made to neutralise a similar, albeit half-baked proposal already made by the PN in 2017, which the party was expected to re-propose again. Now i is Labour that appears more competitive when it comes to visionary appeal, dispelling the image of Labour as a party concerned by short-term and accelerated economic growth.

But what happens after the election?

Will the debate be paralysed by multiple fears conjured by a ‘brave new world’ where the construction industry still calls the shots as land reclamation looms on the horizon with the 10 billion tonnes of excavation waste created by the excavation of tunnels for the metro?

Attard herself finds the link to land reclamation “strange”. “I am not sure I understand what lies behind it… is this a construction development model? A way to justify the handling of the waste generated? But surely such a decision requires further studies and planning.”

Even the images of the new stations of the metro being shared by the government on the social media seem tailor-made to confuse and split public opinion. For apart from depicting manicured open spaces they also offer a glimpse of a new high-rise tower in Pembroke and new development blocking countryside views at the entrance of Bugibba.

Even environmentalists who are usually the most enthusiastic proponents of mass transit solutions, are stunned by these visuals of urban makeovers and by fears of massive coastal development as a result of the construction waste created by the metro.

Overland rail in Naxxar (C) Metro MT
Overland rail in Naxxar (C) Metro MT

Attard’s fear is that this is “just generating hype and acting as a distraction to what we should be discussing and doing”.

Going underground

Insiders in Labour insist that this is not just empty talk but a real commitment to change and modernize the country.

Surely embarking on this road may well offer Robert Abela an opportunity to seal his legacy in the annals of history as the PM who opened the first line of the metro. The risk here is that in doing so he may well be tempted to go for the most spectacular option, while postponing any measures to push people from cars to the metro by a decade or two.

For how can one expect a government, which constantly congratulates itself for not raising any new tax to penalise car users with higher fuel and registration taxes?

The other risk is that a metro may be attractive to the big shots not only because of the promise of multi-million tenders but also by opening up a new front for the construction industry, namely land reclamation.

Yet there may be a silver lining in all this. The argument has shifted from one on whether we actually need a mass transit system, to one on which mass transit system is ideal for Malta in terms of environmental and social impacts and which system is best to result in the modal shift.

Prof. Attard is sceptical that the answer is an underground metro which will only serve a part of the island and exclude a large chunk of the population, including Gozo and major urban centres in the south of Malta, which will still have to access the metro lines by bus. “A metro system will not solve the problems related to our car dependence as it just shifts public transport underground, accessible from only a few locations.”

She also laments the lack of information on the level of patronage that would be required to support a metro to make it financially feasible. “The claim that we need higher population points towards known facts about the very high rates of patronage required to support such expensive systems.”

And if buses are added to access and link stations, these would require segregation anyway in the shape of dedicated lanes, to make them as efficient. “So what is the use of a station location which cannot be reached because of buses being stuck in traffic?”

For the metro to be successful and sustainable, Malta would still require car-restrictive measures in order to push as many people as possible to use the system. Otherwise the metro itself would go bust and with it the billions of euros invested in it, possibly from bonds issued to the public.

At that stage failure will no longer be an option, as it would trigger an economic meltdown.