The tunnel of the train station under St Philip Gardens in Floriana proved to be quite an attraction yesterday, 80 years after it was shut down for commuters on March 31, 1931.
This Victorian railway station forms part of a 900-metre long tunnel that runs from the Yellow Garage beneath Valletta’s City Gate up to the Pinetum, next to Portes-des-Bombes.
The Maltese train, known as Il-vapur tal-art, was in service for 48 years, between 1883 and 1931. The train got its name after steam-driven ships were labelled vapur, derived from the Italian word vapore. The word art (land) was added to distinguish the train from sea vessels.
Nowadays, the tunnel houses debris and the remnants of two luggage trolleys. The railway tracks and the train itself were dismantled and sold as scrap over the years. The Malta Railway Foundation hopes to restore it to its former state and will be organising walks trailing the route that the train used to make a century ago, when a first class-ticket cost about four pence.
The 10-mile trip from Valletta to Mtarfa, the train’s last stop, lasted about 20 minutes or slightly longer if a football match was being held at Milend in Ħamrun. Paul Galea, who set up the Malta Railway Foundation, recounted how the train would linger just outside the football pitch so that its engineers, together with the commuters onboard, could enjoy the match for a couple of minutes.
Mr Galea, who has carried out research on the Maltese train for the past 33 years, said that, although the train had scheduled stops at particular platforms and stations, it would sometimes slow down to pick up people on their way to the station who would wave at the train engineer to let him know that they would like to get on board.
Part of the station had served as a shelter during WWII and was furnished with rows of bunk beds for those seeking protection from aerial bombing. The harbour area was heavily bombed during the war and families spent days on end in the humid, overcrowded tunnel.
Those who did not afford private shelter rooms stayed huddled together in a common area accessible from Sarria Street, which, at times, was a hub for contagious diseases. Others even tiled their own rooms and decorated the place with metal figurines of saints or the Virgin Mary. Part of the stairs leading down to the tunnel was transformed into a teaching area.
A section of the tunnel was used as a telephone exchange communications hub between WWII and the 1970s.
Tours were yesterday held by the Malta Railway Foundation in collaboration with the local council as part of the day’s events highlighting Floriana’s gardens and historical buildings.