The Malta Independent 15 October 2021, Friday

Why a metro system in Malta is destined to fail (and other transport issues)

Stephen Calleja Sunday, 10 October 2021, 09:30 Last update: about 5 days ago

The government has launched the idea of an underground system that is intended to provide an alternative means of transportation to thousands of commuters and, in so doing, hopefully ease the traffic congestion on our roads.

The proposal is to have three lines and 25 stations, mostly in the central part of Malta. The project as presented might change after the public consultation exercise, but as it stands now it is envisaged that it will take between 15 and 20 years to complete – on the day that it starts – at a cost of €6.2 billion.

That is the plan and those are the estimates – whether the metro will eventually come to be and, if yes, whether it will be finished within the established timeframe and the money spent on it will be that much is something that future generations will discuss.

Transport Minister Ian Borg said that a metro system in Malta could only be planned after the road network in Malta was improved via a series of tunnels, overhead passes and widening of the existing stretches which, in their own way, are pushing people away from using public transport and getting more used to relying on their own car.

First we’re doing our utmost to encourage people to use their own transport means, and later we’ll tell them to change their mentality and start using the underground. That’s how things are in Malta.

The presentation of the project was highly professional, although it was quite strange that the government chose a Saturday evening to do it, with the media only informed about it less than two hours before the event.

This is, of course, the least of the issues that have been raised on the project. Other, more serious, concerns have already made the headlines, for example on the idea of a high-rise building outside the station in Pembroke, or the removal of the Censu Tabone monument and historic fountain in Balluta. We’re sure that other matters will crop up in the coming months and years.

On paper, a metro system looks perfect for our country given that we all know what it means to be stuck in traffic because our roads are inadequate for the amount of cars and also because there are shortcomings in the planning stages of such work, including the detours one is forced to take. It is not rare that drivers find alternative roads also blocked by some other project as they seek to arrive at their destination.

But whether the metro project is sustainable in a small country like ours is a matter of grave concern.

Small numbers

Many cities around the world have an underground transport system. In most cases, the resident population in these cities runs into millions, while the number of visitors to these places adds up to many more millions. There are then a number of metro systems in smaller cities, and it is on such examples that, it is said, the plan to have a metro system in Malta is based.

But is a population of 500,000 people, to which one must add the foreigners who visit Malta for a holiday or business must be added, enough to make the system make a profit? Is there an assumption, which would be a wrong one, that once the metro system is in place the majority of people will be using it to go from one place to another?

According to the plans as proposed, the system that is being envisaged in Malta will have 25 stations, with most of them based in the central part of the country, which is the most populated. But, just by taking a quick look at these 25 stops, it is clear immediately that there are large towns which have been omitted from the plan. Places such as Qormi and San Gwann, Zebbug and Siggiewi, Rabat and Mellieha, not to mention the southern coastal localities of Marsascala, Marsaxlokk and Birzebbuga, have been left out.

It is said that the 25 stations are only the beginning, and that the metro system could later be expanded. But, until that happens, what are the residents of these areas expected to do? Is the government thinking that they will be taking their car to the nearest metro station, try to find a parking place, and then take the underground and make the reverse journey at the end of the day? Or take a bus to the nearest station (if such a service will exist)?

It is easy to believe that many will not opt for such a complicated way to get from point A to point B, and so there will be a great number of people who will choose not to use the metro system because it will not be convenient for them. If they had to do this, it would increase the time they would spend on the journey, and time, for everyone, is precious. So they will still use their own car.

The same could be said for people who live in the towns indicated on the plan, but reside too far away from the one station earmarked for their locality (only St Julian’s will have two, according to the plan presented last week, one just outside Paceville and the other in Balluta).

Take Sliema, for example. The presentation shows that the metro station will be located at the Ferries. Do the planners believe that people who live in the heart of Sliema, those close to the police station area for example, will be using the metro station if they then will have to walk back up that steep hill on the return journey back home?

In a country where people are used to having bus-stops every 200 metres and complain when there isn’t one within these 200 metres, are the metro planners expecting people to walk more than one kilometre to get to or from the nearest metro station? People who have a 10-15 minute walk to the nearest station, sometimes uphill, will mostly choose the easy way out and use their own car.

And, in a country where people use their car to go buy pastizzi from a shop 300 metres down the road, will they change their mentality and walk triple that distance, probably more, to take the metro?

Imagine spending €6.2 billion – and the longer it takes to do it, the higher the costs will go – and then the numbers do not make it sustainable. What a waste that would be.

Frequency and timing

People who have been abroad and used underground transport systems know that the secret of their success is that one does not have to wait long to get on a train. In the busiest of areas and at peak hours, trains arrive within one or two minutes of each other, with passengers disembarking and embarking quickly for the train to proceed on its voyage in the shortest time possible. At other hours and in more remote areas, the frequency is lower but one does not have to wait more than a few minutes for trains to arrive.

The question that arises again is whether there will be enough people who make use of the metro system in Malta to make it sustainable. A metro train that passes every 30 minutes will not attract commuters; but then, if trains are available every 10 minutes (at the maximum) there will not be enough commuters to make the system viable.

If there is a low train frequency, commuters will soon realise that it would be much easier to use one’s own car, and so they would shun the underground - just as much as today they shun buses simply because they have to wait too long to catch one.

What one hopes is that all of this will not mean that, once the metro is completed, drivers will be asked to pay for parking in what are now free public places to make it more difficult, and more expensive, for them to use their own cars, while encouraging them to use the underground.

There’s another thing which seems to have been given little consideration – and this is the maintenance that the system, including the rails, would require. Such a service needs constant care, with engineers, technicians and other workers doing their duties during the night (when there are no trains running) to carry out all the necessary work to keep the trains and rails in ship-shape condition and, most of all, safe for travellers. Would the costs of maintaining such high standards be sustainable?

Timeline

People have started to talk about the metro system as if it is something that will be ready tomorrow. They seem not to have learnt the lesson that, in Malta, these things take time.

Just to give an idea, talk about a permanent link (bridge or tunnel) between Malta and Gozo started in the 1960s, hibernated for decades, and was then rekindled 10 years ago.

And we’re still far away from making up our minds about it and reaching the point when actual work will start (if ever it will).

We are still at the stage of thinking of holding a referendum about it, with the Nationalist Party ridiculously suggesting that it should be held among Gozitans only. As if only Gozitans will make use of it, or that it will be paid for only from their taxes. As if people in the north of Malta will not be affected by it.

(By the way, if water continues to drip from the ceiling in the St Julian’s tunnel as one is driving north – and this after a €10 million rehabilitation project which took much longer to complete than estimated – one wonders what is going to happen with an under-sea tunnel linking the two islands.)

Speaking of Gozo, both major parties are proposing an air-link. Again, it has happened in the past, and it always failed. Why they continue to insist on such a project boggles the mind.

The metro system has been launched with so much pomp, but we are still decades away from seeing anything started, let alone being completed.

Many of us will not live long enough to see the first train, if there will be one.

 

  • don't miss