Prime Minister Robert Abela, promised that discussions about the possible introduction of an underground mass transportation system would start being discussed in the coming days. Discussing mass transit solutions in Malta is not a novel concept. Traffic problems have plagued Malta in recent history. This is a country with 4 cars for every 5 inhabitants, with 56 new cars being registered every day by the end of 2020. The large-scale road network investment we have been witnessing, such as the Marsa flyovers, seems to have cut down travelling time so far.
While the aesthetic impact of these infrastructural projects is dubious, we seem ready to tolerate them if they mean that we spend less time in traffic. So far, this does seem to be the case, but the jury is still out. Road building on its own will only alleviate traffic temporarily, due to the concept of induced demand.
What is induced demand?
Induced demand refers to the idea that increasing road capacity encourages more people to drive, thus failing to reduce congestion.
When congestion on roads is high, people are more likely to use alternative means of transport as there is the perception that travel times will be shorter. When new roads are opened, it temporarily increases the supply of road space and traffic decreases. Traffic is now slightly better, so people get back in their cars, resulting in congestion returning to the same level as before, and sometimes becoming even worse.
While the projects the government has embarked on have been generally deemed as necessary, we understand that multiple longer-term solutions for mass transit are being evaluated.
While the possibility of a subway has long been mooted, a 2019 opinion piece in The Sunday Times of Malta by engineer Konrad Xuereb, where he published the findings of a study carried out by KonceptX, went viral on social media.
KonceptX proposed an exclusively underground metro, built in three phases. The first phase would connect Mellieħa with Birżebbuġa and the Malta International Airport, a 25km line going through Malta’s densely populated east coast. The second phase would close the loop by connecting the airport with St Paul’s bay through a 10km line, with stops in densely populated towns in central Malta, including Qormi, Birkirkara and Mosta. The third and final phase would connect Malta to Gozo, with an undersea rail tunnel 15km long, going north from Mellieħa through to Marsalforn.
If the Maltese government did indeed opt for an underground system, it would be the largest infrastructural project this country has ever seen. The estimated capital cost of between €3-4bn would only be partly offset by ticket revenue, based on current population figures.
Building an underground metro would definitely not be a short-term solution, although Dr Xuereb is hopeful that, if two tunnel-boring machines are used, the first phase would be completed in just five years and the second and third phases taking a further two and three years respectively.
There are other concerns regarding the construction debris that would be generated by tunnelling into underground rock. Dr Xuereb estimates that the project would generate between three to four million cubic metres of earth in waste – a significant issue that would need to be overcome in a country which is already struggling to cope with construction waste.
Moreover, detailed environmental and archaeological studies would be required prior to final plans, in order to ascertain the sustainability of the project.
Monorail or Hybrid-rail
In 2015, architectural students Justin Zarb and Luke Lapira published their final-year dissertation, where they outlined their proposed monorail solution in detail. The monorail proposal has a long list of supporters - even President George Vella recently announced that he has long supported national investment in a monorail system as an effective method of transport resulting in fewer cars on the road.
Zarb and Lapira’s solution proposed a circular line (aptly called the Loop), going through the major localities at the centre of Malta including Birkirkara, Qormi and Marsa as well as Mater Dei Hospital. Seven more lines would be adjoined to the Loop, similarly to how multiple lines are adjoined to London Underground’s Circle Line. From localities on the Loop, indicated in bold below, the seven lines would sprawl out into various localities in all directions of Malta including:
Sliema Line: Msida – Manoel Island – Sliema
Valletta Shuttle: Pieta – Valletta
Harbour Line: Marsa – MCAST – Fgura – Zabbar – Smart City
Airport Line: Marsa – Airport – Luqa – Bir id-Deheb
Mdina Line: Mosta Technopark – Ta’ Qali National Stadium – Mdina
Bugibba Line: Mosta Technopark – San Pawl tat-Targa – Burmarrad – Bugibba
Valley Line: Panoramika – Tal-Balal – Spinola
Back in 1991, hotelier Anglu Xuereb had proposed a mass transit solution – a hybrid solution of an underground rail and an elevated monorail. The proposal has since been amended multiple times, including the redrafting of routes and the inclusion of electric buses ferrying passengers in between densely populated old towns where neither underground tunnelling nor an overground monorail would be feasible.
Stations would be located around Malta, with the first phase targeting the most congested urban areas around the inner and outer harbour areas. The second phase would extend the network to the airport and St Paul’s Bay area. The third phase would see the network extend further north towards Cirkewwa.
While the monorail and the hybrid rail proposals would require less capital investment when compared to a completely underground subway system, the cost would still run into unprecedented levels in Malta. Zarb and Lapira’s solution was projected to have cost the government around €1.7bn in 2015, and the hybrid solution would be expected to be more expensive, given that underground systems are more expensive than overground ones.
Monorails have the added visual impact which needs to be taken into consideration. Would the distance of the route always be kept reasonably far from residential properties, in order to avoid any intrusions on residents’ right to privacy within their property? Moreover, other modes of transport would need sufficient clearance to pass beneath the monorail which would put further obstacles to the proposal, particularly when thinking about already congested Maltese roads.
In 2007, the Malta Transport Authority commissioned Halcrow Group, a UK consultancy firm, to draft a report on the feasibility of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Malta. BRT was defined as high frequency bus services operating on fully segregated bus roads, often within a wide highway alignment for bus lanes. More recently, urban planning consultant Bjorn Bonello has advocated for this proposal.
BRT builds on existing road infrastructure but integrates bus lanes that are fully segregated from normal traffic, meaning cars would have no access to such lanes. While BRT would need dedicated infrastructure, they would operate on a concept very similar to trams found across a number of European cities.
BRT would represent the cheapest option out of all alternatives considered. The rollout would take the shortest period of time and the use of electric buses would further reduce congestion and improve air quality.
However, the implementation of segregated bus lanes may not be as feasible in smaller towns with narrower streets. Also, would there be satisfactory take-up in a country seemingly disdainful of public transport?
In a Cabinet meeting in August 2020, the Prime Minister argued that Malta cannot hope to host the most sophisticated industries, only for morning traffic to grind the country to a halt. He was also quoted as saying that “it was time for decisions to be taken” with regards to mass transit solutions.
The government seems to be taking its time in taking a decision, but the scale of the capital expenditure required warrants serious evaluation. After all, some of the proposals represent unprecedented costs and the final decision will have a lasting impact on generations to come.
The traffic problem we are facing today is because older Maltese towns were built for horse and carts, not heavy car traffic. Let’s think further ahead this time.