In 1942, Benito Mussolini proudly declared that an Italian air raid had destroyed the Malta Railway… but the vapur tal-art had stopped operating more than a decade before.
The train serviced the Mdina to Valletta route for nearly 50 years and proved quite popular when it was introduced in 1883, cutting down to 25 minutes a trip that would otherwise last three and a half hours on a mule-drawn cart.
The efficient railway was designed by the same team which 25 years earlier had drawn up the plans for the London Tube. The British wanted to extend the system to the north and south of Malta, including Gozo.
But by the first quarter of the 20th century, commuters had warmed up to the idea that route buses could pick up and drop off passengers in remote places that were out of reach of the train’s tracks.
“People had thought that the introduction of the tram, at the turn of the century, would spell the end of the train. But the tram stopped operating 15 months before the train, and it was the buses that dealt the railway its death knell,” Malta Railway Foundation chair Paul Galea told Times of Malta.
Nearly a century since its demise, Malta is rethinking its traffic system, with the government proposing a three-line underground metro system. “The system will run underground as most of the overground space has been built up. It will take years to build, and had we preserved the Malta Railway system, we might not have to go through the whole process from scratch.
“However, it’s easier to say so in retrospect. I wonder whether, if I lived back then, if I would have been in favour of the train. There were instances when farmers had entire fields destroyed in a fire set off by a spark from the train, while land was expropriated to make way for the tracks.”
Local and English entrepreneurs were also not too keen on the train as the system was self-sustainable and they could not make any profit off it: the British not only imported the railway material, but even trained employees in-house. And there is at least one police report accusing a karozzin driver of leaving rocks on the tracks to derail it.
The train’s stint in Malta is not marred by any major tragedies, although people did attempt suicide on its tracks, while others got injured by a passing train as they tried to cross the tracks. One commuter’s death from a heart attack went unnoticed until a conductor approached the man in Valletta to tell him the trip had ended.
“St Aloysius’ College students would also place bets on whether they would be able to beat an approaching train and run across its tracks before it zoomed past their school building. Other students would put a farthing on the tracks to calculate how many commuters were on the train by analysing the dent it left on the copper coin. Thank God, none were injured in the process.
“However, one herd of bulls was not so lucky: some 32 bulls were killed by a train approaching Santa Venera from Rabat. The guard had put up a chain closing off access to the tracks, however, this meant nothing to the herd, which was travelling to Msida from Marsa.”
These anecdotes are being preserved for posterity by the foundation, which in turn, is digitising its material and depositing it at the National Archives of Malta.
In the meantime, in collaboration with local councils and with the help of European funds, the foundation has, among others, restored the last remaining wagon and the Birkirkara station, which will host a transport museum. It has also secured European and local government funds to build a replica of the Attard Embankment.
Harassment, pranks and free rides
The Birkirkara museum will not only host artefacts, but also showcase the passengers’ lived experiences.
“A couple of anecdotes are linked to the mina sewda (black tunnel), situated between Floriana and Valletta. There are reports of women being harassed when the train went underground leaving passengers in pitch darkness.
“Soldiers who were posted to Malta also fell for tales of ghost sightings in this tunnel, peering their heads out of the window to catch a glimpse of paranormal activity. But all they would catch is soot on their face, which they would only notice, to their embarrassment once they walked through Strada Rjali and saw their reflection in a shop window.”
Records also show that not everyone afforded to ride the train. Among others, Herbert Ganado recalls, in Rajt Malta Tinbidel, joining his siblings to beg their father for a train ride. “For several, including those who had a good standing in society, train rides were a treat… a once-in-a-lifetime experience that remained a dream for many children.
“It has been reported that conductors would even close one eye when spotting children without a ticket, while others would reuse the same ticket several times, or ride first and second class with a third-class ticket in hand.”
Malta’s hidden treasures series
This article is being published as part of a series called Malta’s hidden treasures, a collaboration between the National Archives of Malta and Times of Malta. The project, forming part of the European Digital Treasures co-funded by the European Union through the Creative Europe programme, allows readers to gain an insight into Maltese history and society through our archives.
Readers can discover more at the National Archives of Malta headquartered at the historical building of Santo Spirito in Rabat and other archives. If one is unable to visit the archives in person, one will soon be able to access an online oral and visual archive called Memorja.
The website will be the main repository of recent Maltese national and public memory and will host hundreds of recollections dating back to the 1920s. Those interested in this project can register online at www.memorja.com ahead of the launch of the website.
For more information about the national archives call 2145 9863 or e-mail email@example.com.
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