Are you ready for a journey following the Malta Railway, which ran down the middle of the island between 1883 and 1931? The trip will take you from Valletta via Floriana, Hamrun, Msida, Santa Venera, Birkirkara, Balzan, San Anton (Attard) and San Savatore (near Mount Carmel Hospital) to Notabile, or Mdina. A further station, Museum Station, was added to connect the railway with the Mtarfa barracks. Roads were closed off and horse-drawn carriages had to stop so as to allow trains to pass.
Not many alive today remember the Malta Railway in operation. It ran for less than 60 years from 1883 until 1931. The line was opened on 28th February 1883 at 3pm, when the first train left Valletta and arrived at Mdina after about 25 minutes. The railway line stopped operating on 31st March 1931, largely due to the introduction of buses in 1905, which had become popular by the 1920s.
The main reason for the railway’s existence was to connect the capital Valletta with the former capital Mdina. The journey time between the two cities was reduced from three hours originally, to approximately half an hour. The first two stations, Valletta and Floriana, were underground, with the Valletta station sadly being damaged during World War II and demolished in the 1960s to make way for Freedom Square; its site is now occupied by the Maltese Parliament.
The railway map also shows a road circuit from Valletta to Mdina via the southern villages. Just note, as a matter of curiosity, the altogether different spellings given to many of these towns and villages on the Malta train tickets and maps of merely a century ago - a testament to the evolution of the Maltese language. Look at the southern villages' names: Tarscien (Tarxien), Zeitun (Zejtun), Asciak (Ghaxaq), Gudia (Gudja), Chircop (Kirkop), Zurrico (Zurrieq), Krendi (Qrendi) and Micabba (Mqabba) to name a few.
Several black and white photos of the trains are reminiscent of Thomas the tank engine, which revolutionised Maltese transportation at the time yet seem ancient a century later. It is interesting that during the entire period of the Malta Railway, only 10 locomotives were used. The carriages were wooden on iron frames; and only one of these still survives, located in Birkirkara at Ġnien l-Istazzjon (Station Garden).
Some of the railway buildings also survive. The railway station at Birkirkara endures within said garden, and the old railway station just below Mdina in the limits of Rabat and Mtarfa is now enjoying a second life as a restaurant named L-Istazzjon (The Station).
In Attard, you will find the Malta Railway Museum, a small private museum which is open to the public on demand. It displays photographs, documents and other memorabilia of the railway, and also contains models of eight segments of the line reconstructed between 1981 and 1985 by Nicholas Azzopardi.
Apart from a ticket office in Floriana and two dilapidated luggage trolleys found in an old railway tunnel in 2011, little else remains of this piece of history in the Maltese Islands.
Do you think a rail system could work in Malta nowadays? Could it be the answer to our traffic problem?