The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Would trains in Malta be a viable option to eliminate traffic congestion?

Rebecca Iversen Monday, 28 August 2017, 09:50 Last update: about 5 years ago

A railway system was a hot topic of conversation in the election period and was thrown on to the table of possible solutions to traffic congestion by both major political parties this last year. Yet how effective would this actually prove to be to solve Malta’s enormous traffic jams?

On one hand, the PL government announced in May that it was to construct a railway system. The Prime Minster announced that he was to issue a report – a government commissioned study into the feasibility of a mass public transportation system. This report has still not been produced. The Nationalist party had also spoken about trains in which in its campaign, and its manifesto involved the construction of four metro lines, some underground and some at street level to be completed in five years. However their main idea was to build an under-water tunnel for a high-speed train, between Malta and Gozo.

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Bjorn Bonello, a planning consultant who specializes on traffic, spoke to The Malta Independent about Malta’s options and whether railways would solve Malta’ congestion problems.  “It is very difficult to re-package the bus system into something sexy. You won’t win any brownie points if you say ‘I’m going to improve the bus service’. It’s already been attempted and it failed. The problem is the capacity of the system. It’s one thing saying you’re improving certain sections then saying you’re going to change the whole system”

Bonello spoke about a mixture of buses and rail being the most viable option for Malta in order to improve traffic issues. “We have been failing repeatedly to provide buses and vehicles adaptable to certain routes. For example, double decker and bendy buses for Sliema would make sense because of the sheer number of people. Whilst small narrow roads don’t fit for even the buses we have now and cause difficulties for cars and pedestrians.”

Bonello then explained the differences of rail and transport systems. “There are different types of rail. Light rail is what has been offered recently by political parties here. Both political parties wanted to show something new and innovative even if it is not the ideal solution. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is a bus-based transport system; this bus can do both, which really is great option for Malta. Light rapid transit is in-between a bus and a heavy gauge rail. It is flexible, cheap, fast and innovative. It can also be a wireless system so no need for wires etc. It’s modern, it does take up road space but cars and pedestrian can pass. Good to integrate with urban centres”

When questioned about heavy rail, he explained the problems involved with such a system of transport; “Heavy rail doesn’t make sense in Malta for our population, it far too small. Plus one needs to think about the environmental impact, how this means more infrastructure, more space needed, more noise; you can’t share road space and it is more expensive.”

The notion of underground rail has been mentioned by both political parties as a viable option for Malta, yet Mr Bonello explains that although people believe that they will be able to use the road while a tunnel is being constructed, this is not the case. “To create a tunnel underground you need to dig the whole road out. We also need to consider the stone that one finds underneath in Malta, property rights which are not so clear here in Malta but how far down does someone own their property and how will building a tunnel affect that. Another possible impact from digging such a tunnel could be producing rock and construction waste; whilst we also need to give consideration for the impact on the water table.”

“Underground stations need stations and there’s no space right now in Malta for such stations. These stations need to be close to residential areas otherwise no one will use them and to be honest we don’t have the population or space, even at peak times it would be hard to reach such consistently. Surface options are always the better options.”

Light rail is appropriate to Malta’s population, it is also flexible, easier to change and expand and can be easier than having a more glamourous and expensive system, which will still cause huge issues.

When asked about the notion of inserting a tunnel between Gozo and Malta, Mr Bonello said: “I am currently doing a study about Gozitan travelling patterns.  If the tunnel is ever built, it should not be all traffic but rail. If you have a travel tunnel there are many risks; a high speed 10 km tunnel to drive through is asking for accidents and if there is a big accident that’s going to cause big issues. A rail is safer.”

“There is no quick and easy solution for Gozitans now. But in my opinion you need to invest €500/600 million, bring state of the art, high speed catamarans. You could do a trip from Mgarr to Sliema in 30 minutes and that would minimise the journey by three quarters.”

In all, it depends on the type of rail that is to be chosen, however an integrated system seems to fit best. With a bus feeding the system where main routes are done by rail – to secure capacity and speed, a light rail system of sort is needed. “Some people suggest a monorail, which is an elevated rail however problems arise with its flexibility. You can’t have it everywhere because were not big enough, you need a system that penetrates important areas” added Bonello.

 “A light rail route which goes to commercial centres, densely populated areas and main routes from North to Centre to South with the buses used for the non-main route journeys, a strategic network which incorporates rail and busses.”

Bonello said that even if these sorts of systems are implemented, better management of our road space is still needed. Furthermore if such systems of transport are chosen, then people will need to start using it over cars.

“Most likely, light rail train will probably be cheaper than a bus if the system operates properly. It’s not so easy to plan on site but LRT would give us a better shot than heavier rail which is too inflexible. You need to psychologically show people that a system like BRT which is based on buses is a fast option.”

This newspaper also contacted entrepreneur Anġlu Xuereb (above), who has been an active supporter of a larger scale transport system. When asked about his opinion of inputting railways or underground systems in Malta, Xuereb replied “I do think that where we can, underground metro would be suitable in a few areas in Malta. There should be three routes one from the North, Central and South”.

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