Malta’s population size no stumbling block for metro

Brescia became the smallest European city to have a metro line in 2013. Can Malta ever follow suit, Kurt Sansone asks

Based on the Halcrow findings, the government had shunned the tram option and shifted its focus to revamping the bus service
Based on the Halcrow findings, the government had shunned the tram option and shifted its focus to revamping the bus service

If population size is a key consideration when assessing the feasibility of an underground mass transport system, Malta has definitely made the grade.

Malta’s resident population at the last count was 7,000 people shy of the half-a-million mark, according to the National Statistics Office.

At the end of 2018, the NSO registered a population of 493,559, which represents a 20% increase since a 2008 study that assessed the feasibility of a tramway.

The population count would put Malta at par with the French city of Lyon with a population of around 500,000.

Lyon, France’s third largest city, has had a metro system since 1978. The city is served by four lines, 40 stations and a total route length of 32km.

But there are other cities with much smaller populations that operate underground mass transit systems.

The shortest and the smallest

The shortest in the world is the single-line underground funicular that serves the Israeli city of Haifa. The Carmelit, as it is called, started being built in 1956 and was completed three years later to provide an eight-minute link between the seaside areas of the city and the upper parts of Mount Carmel.

Haifa’s population is half of Malta’s and the single-line subway runs along a 1.8km track with six stations along the way.

But closer to home, the Italian city of Brescia became the smallest European city to have a metro system in 2013.

The Italian city boasts a single-line metro that runs along a route of 13.7km and has 17 stations. The metro services a population of around 200,000.

Brescia Metro celebrated carrying its 100 millionth passenger in March 2019 after six years in operation.

These figures alone would seem to justify the creation of a metro system in Malta, where the population is also boosted by more than two million tourists that visit annually.

However, the other key components in any feasibility study will have to factor in the capital cost to build the infrastructure and the cost to operate the underground system once it is ready.

This is where the numbers game gets more complicated because both expenditures will have to be reflected in the price paid by the consumer for the service and the possible public subsidy to ensure feasibility and a return for investors.

The government has been studying the metro option for more than two years now, engaging Danish firm Arup to map out the options.

The only public utterances to date have focused on the unfeasibility of extending the metro to Gozo with Times of Malta reporting that Arup’s plan was for a 30km loop focusing on the northern harbour region.

One-line underground system

Architect Konrad Xuereb, who runs KonceptX, had earlier this year put a price tag of between €3 billion and €4 billion on a design based on a one-line underground system, which would be built in three phases. 

Xuereb’s proposal would see the construction of a one-line metro system that would include a principle route between Mellieħa and Birżebbuġa, via a loop that connects the harbour areas and the airport.

Xuereb's proposal could eventually see a connection between Mellieħa and three localities in Gozo via an undersea tunnel.

His is the only independent ballpark figure so far for the construction of an underground system in Malta.

Xuereb had argued that despite the hefty capital expenditure, the payback period for such a project would be shorter due to the larger customer base it would attract, and more revenues from fares and advertisements. The estimated annual revenue would be €300 million, with €150 million needed to operate it. 

The Nationalist Party had set a price tag of €2.3 billion on a 2017 election proposal for a metro that would run both over ground and underground. Another €300 million would be required to build a tunnel to Gozo and extend the metro to the sister island, the PN proposal said.

For comparison’s sake, the Brescia Metro cost more than €900 million to construct and this included the price for the trains. The metro line was dug out at a depth of 25m and the construction process from inception to completion took 10 years.

The city also had to contend with delays on the project when construction work in some parts hit on historic finds, a situation that could very likely be experienced in Malta.

The 2008 tram study

The only publicly available study on a mass transport system in Malta was done in 2008 and it delved into the possibility of having a tram service, not an underground.

The government had commissioned the UK-based Halcrow Group to prepare the study, which identified two potential routes – Valletta to Sliema, passing through Pieta, Msida, Ta’ Xbiex and Gżira, and Valletta to Ta’ Qali, passing through Hamrun, Birkirkara, and Attard.

Halcrow had concluded that such a project would require a capital investment of between €206 million and €325 million. The annual operating cost was estimated at €7.5 million.

The project would have required the trams to share the road with cars and potential bottlenecks were identified along both routes that would require the removal of on-street parking and possible re-routing of vehicular traffic to prioritise trams.

Based on the Halcrow findings, the government had shunned the tram option and shifted its focus to revamping the bus service.

Calls for the construction of a metro system have resurfaced lately in the wake of protests sparked by the destruction of trees and arable land as a result of road projects.

Government has pledged to pour millions of euros into improving the road infrastructure by widening arterial roads and in some instances building new ones, such as Attard’s Central Link.

Cars and buses

With NSO figures putting Malta’s car population at almost 400,000 vehicles, of which 78% are private cars, the need to improve the road network by removing bottlenecks and ensuring safer traffic flows is self-evident.

However, a longer-term view of the country’s mobility needs may require the construction of an underground mass transport system to get people out of their cars, reduce congestion and improve air quality.

The government’s plans for a metro system have so far not seen the light of day and the emphasis remains on road works and growing the public bus system.

Buses carried 53.4 million passengers in 2018, exhibiting a growing trend that necessitated the introduction of 40 new vehicles this month. The public purse also subsidises the bus system with this year’s outlay expected to reach €29.8 million.

But as long as public transport continues to use the same roads that are clogged by cars, the level of efficiency will always suffer.

That Malta is a car-loving nation was confirmed by a survey carried out by sister newspaper Illum. When asked what was their preferred means of transport, 80.6% said their car, while 16.6% said the bus.

The introduction of a mass transit system may help wean people off their cars on the promise of faster and more efficient travel times. However, when this will happen, if at all, is a whole different argument altogether.

Halcrow tram study (2008)
Halcrow tram study (2008)

Compare and contrast

PN election proposal (2017)
PN election proposal (2017)

2008 Halcrow tram study

  • A two-line tram would cost between €206m and €325m to build
  • The annual cost to operate was estimated at €7.5 million
  • The project will take 10 years to build
  • Route 1 will connect Valletta to Sliema for a 15-minute journey time
  • Route 2 will connect Valletta to Ta’ Qali for a 21-minute journey time

Konrad Xuereb proposal (2019)
Konrad Xuereb proposal (2019)

2017 PN election proposal

  • Four-line underground and overground train would cost €2.3 billion to build
  • The annual cost to operate was estimated at €56 million
  • The project will take 20 years to build
  • Route 1 will connect Valletta to St Julians via Msida, Gzira and Sliema
  • Route 2 will connect Valletta to Ta’ Qali via Birkirkara, Mosta and Naxxar
  • Route 3 will connect Valletta to Marsaskala via Paola, the Cottonera, the airport and Zabbar
  • Route 4 will connect St Julians to Cirkewwa and Victoria
  • The last route will necessitate a further investment of €300m to build a rail tunnel between Malta and Gozo

Brescia Metro
Brescia Metro

2018 Konrad Xuereb proposal

  • One-line underground system would cost between €3 billion and €4 billion to build over three phases
  • The estimated annual revenue would €300 million and the annual estimated cost to operate would be €150 million.
  • The project will take 10 years to complete
  • The first phase will connect Mellieha to Birzebbuga via a loop passing through the northern and southern harbour regions, Valletta and the airport.
  • The second phase will connect St Paul’s Bay to the airport via the central localities of Mosta, Mriehel and Qormi.
  • The third phase will be an undersea tunnel connection between Mellieha, Xewkija, Victoria and Marsalforn.

Brescia Metro

  • One-line underground system that cost €935 million to build
  • Project took 10 years to complete
  • 18 trains are used to operate the system at 3 minute intervals
  • The route runs along 13.7km
  • 17 underground stations service the city
  • System can carry 8,500 passengers per hour

More in National