Insight

Malta: What’s next? A Look at the Metro Proposal

Road congestion is one of Malta’s biggest transport challenges. Architect Dr Konrad Xuereb does not only support the idea of a metro system; he has developed a detailed proposal for an underground mass transit system and triggered a lively debate on the island whether such a system is feasible and worth the disruption caused by its construction. In our new series "Malta: What’s next", Konrad Xuereb outlines his vision for a single-line metro that would cost approximately €4 billion.

You have worked on large-scale infrastructure projects. Can you tell us a bit more about yourself, your experience and your firm KonceptX?

As a structural engineer and architect, my ambition is to make a difference to our built environment by generating innovative ideas and delivering sustainable, economical and elegant projects. My firm, KonceptX, shares this over-all mission and specialises in sensitive refurbishments of listed buildings, cultural, health care and infrastructural projects predominantly in the UK and Malta. I set up KonceptX in London in 2015 after working with international practices on a variety of award-winning projects, including pedestrian bridges, high rise buildings and refurbishment projects. An opportunity arose a couple of years ago to set up a parallel office in Valletta, and I now split my time between the two capitals. Our strength is drawing up structural engineering solutions for complex projects, on both a large and smaller scale. One of our projects completed recently is a 180-metre long pedestrian bridge in Terni, close to Rome. The bridge was designed to meet both the town’s current and future needs. This involved designing a segment of the bridge in such a way that it can be demounted and re-positioned to provide further connectivity as the town expands and further areas are regenerated in the future.   

  

Malta has embarked on a nationwide project to alleviate some major traffic bottlenecks, including the widening of roads and opening up a number of junctions. Your firm has presented a proposal for a metro line in Malta. In your opinion, why does Malta need a mass transit system? 

The key marker of a healthy economy in today’s world is when GDP growth is accompanied by the improvement of people’s well-being, especially in relation to the environment we live in. The sharp demographic growth and construction being experienced in Malta to suit the growing economy needs to be propped up by sustainable measures to ensure that our quality of life is protected.  

Rather than solving the long-term traffic problem, the road widening approach being adopted in Malta just shifts the problem to the next traffic bottleneck, and only encourages ever more cars on our roads while degrading the environment for future generations. 

It is evident that any long-term sustainable transport solution for a densely populated island-state like Malta needs to focus on public transport, with a shift away from the private use of the car. The more difficult it is to use the car, the more people tend to use public transport, which will generate more revenue for government to invest in enhanced public transport projects. It is a straightforward equation and a win-win approach for the government and the public they are serving. I firmly believe that the tangible long-term solution for Malta is to implement a national mass transit system – a metro.


 

KonceptX Malta Metro System proposal 

Can you please provide a brief overview of your metro proposal?

I am proposing that a metro could be designed to connect the most populated areas – residential, tourist and business nodes – with  stations located in urban centres, for example in Triton Square in Valletta and close to the Citadel in Victoria Gozo. The metro could consist of a single line, built in three phases. The first phase would connect Mellieha in the north to the airport via St Paul’s Bay, Bugibba/Qawra, Pembroke/Paceville, St Julian’s, Sliema, Msida (Mater dei Hospital & University), Valletta, Paola, Tarxien, Zejtun and Birzebbuga in the south. The second phase would connect the airport to St Paul’s Bay via Qormi, Birkirkara, Mriehel and Mosta; thus, forming a loop. The third phase would extend the metro line beyond Mellieha to connect Gozo, via Xewkija, Victoria/Rabat and Marsalforn, thus negating the need of a car tunnel between the two islands as currently planned.

I anticipate that with the use of two tunnel boring machines the first phase would take five years to complete from start of construction, the second phase would take an additional two years and the third phase a further three years. I estimate five years of technical studies, including environmental impact assessment, geological studies and archaeological studies, would be required prior to commencement of works. Thus, a total of 15 years from start to finish. 

 

 

KonceptX Malta Metro System proposal 

Would the metro’s benefits exceed the costs of such a project?

The entire project would cost approximately €4 billion. The part of the metro line between Mellieha and Gozo, which I estimate to come in around €675 million, could be eligible for EU funds under the Ten-T programme. A total of €1.57 billion could be financed by government bonds with maturity over 20 years. The remaining €1.75 billion could be paid by the national coffers, amounting to €175 million per annum over 10 years, which is roughly the same amount the country is spending right now per annum in road-widening schemes. 

Malta's population is just under 500,000 at the moment. So, conservatively assuming a local population of 525,000 by 2035 and 2.5 million tourists per annum, and assuming only one in four using the metro for a return trip every day, then this amounts to nearly 53 million people using the metro every year. Nearly 58 million people used the buses in 2018 to keep the numbers in context. This would entail a total revenue of €300 million per annum, including revenue generated from advertisements on trains and stations, and leasing space in stations for retail.

The total cost to run the metro would amount to €150 million per annum, including maintenance costs, energy costs, operating costs and a further contingency allowance. Considering servicing of the government bonds, the payback period to cover the full capital cost would be approximately 30 years. 

In addition to the revenue that can be generated, the underground would provide other indirect cost benefits such as reduced loss of productivity due to less time of people wasted in traffic, reduced healthcare costs due to reduced pollution in the environment from vehicles and ameliorated well-being of population due to people being less stressed in the commute to work.

 

What would be the main advantage of an underground transport system compared to other plublic transport options?

The key benefit of the underground is reliability. A train would depart every 6 minutes. We calculate for example that the trip from Victoria Gozo to the airport would take 32 minutes whilst that from Victoria Gozo to Mater dei Hospital/University would take 35 minutes - regardless of whether the roads are full of traffic, there is a thunderstorm or a heatwave.  

In addition to the hundreds of workers involved in building the entire system, the underground metro would create direct employment for well over a thousand people, in addition to considerably more indirect employment to cater for complementary services.

The stations for the underground would each be the size of a large house and located in urban centres, thus entailing minimal visual impact on the urban and rural landscapes and would be within easy reach of the communities it links. This is a major advantage an underground metro would have compared to over-ground systems, such as mono-rails, which would need to be located away from town centres to avoid causing a huge visual impact on the urban environment due to the cumbersome structures required at street level. 

The proposed metro tunnel would predominantly be located at a depth of approximately 8 storeys below ground level. This would ensure that the construction of the tunnel would not disturb the superficial soils and top geological strata where any yet undiscovered archaeological remains may be lying. Notwithstanding this, detailed environmental and archaeological studies would be required before the final metro route and station locations could be fixed. 

  

Metros are usually part of multi-modal transport systems. What other solutions could Malta put in place to address current and future mobility challenges?

The Malta metro would complement other modes of public transport, including ferries, buses and cycling. Once a metro system is in place, the need to use the private car to commute to work will decrease significantly, and the country would then be able to implement target measures to facilitate complementary public transport systems, for example, dedicated bus lanes. 

The national bus framework would then be reconfigured as a system of shuttle buses on dedicated bus lanes from metro stations to other towns not on the tube line. Furthermore, bicycle free rental hubs would be located close to metro stations, similar to schemes adopted in London, Paris and other major cities. 

Strategic public transport links between localities can be implemented in the near future as plans for the metro advance. Such measures would include enhancing ferry services across waterways, particularly the existing Sliema to Valletta and Cottonera to Valletta ferry services where the existing ferries can be replaced and augmented with resilient watercraft that can remain operational most of the year. 

Furthermore, strategic pedestrian/cycle bridges across harbour areas can be built in the coming years. A pedestrian and cycle bridge from Sliema to lower Valletta for example would cost approximately €15 million to build and would provide a key pedestrian connection between the two towns. It would also act as a catalyst to business both to Sliema’s Tigné zone and to the lower part of Valletta. Another pedestrian and cycle bridge project could be implemented across the Grand Harbour, for example from Senglea to Valletta, with the central part of the bridge openable to allow cruise liners to pass unhindered at predetermined times. Similar link projects have been done successfully overseas with considerable long-term benefits to local populations and business. 

 

The transport sector in general is currently undergoing major changes, with shared mobility concepts as well as more sustainable transport options playing an increasingly important role. How do you believe mobility and transport will change in the coming years, in Malta and abroad?

Malta is effectively a city state, and the challenges it faces are similar to those of larger cities across the world. A successful pattern of mobility adopted in modern cities overseas is based on having efficient mass transit systems transporting volumes of peoples to nodes from where people then proceed towards their destination via bus, cycling or walking.

Over the past years, there has been an emphasis in European cities like Paris, London and Amsterdam to facilitate the use of cycling and other green modes of mobility, and there is no reason why Malta should not follow these sustainable modes of transport. Furthermore, the governing bodies of these cities have implemented target measures, such as congestion zone charges and ultra-high emission zone charges in London, that further discourage the use of the private car. These systems and measures collectively allow policy-makers to plan dedicated bus lanes and cycle superhighways or even pedestrianise entire zones. It is important to highlight that these systems can be implemented successfully in these major cities due to the presence of an efficient public transport system, including metro, trams and buses which discourage the private use of the car, thus freeing the roads for other forms of sustainable transport.

I think that the future of mobility and transport will pivot more around sustainable forms of transport where even further measures will be adopted by policy-makers to facilitate other green measures of transport, including possibly electric scooters and foldable bicycles that people can carry with them on buses and the metro. The population would expect policy-makers to adopt and facilitate such sustainable measures as it will affect their well-being and quality of lives. 

In Malta, the younger generations are more environmentally conscious, and the population is bound to expect the introduction of sustainable forms of transport to reduce pollution and improve our well-being and quality of life.  

  

Beyond transport, in your opinion, what other infrastructure improvements should be high on Malta’s agenda? 

Malta currently imports most of its energy needs which is based on fossil fuels. Given this vulnerability, investment in renewable energy should be high on Malta’s agenda. Malta is blessed to have clear skies most of the year and is also fairly exposed to the wind: natural resources that can be harnessed for renewable energy. For example, the London Array offshore wind farm on the Thames Estuary (a 175 turbine 630MW wind farm) produces enough energy to meet the demands of 750,000 homes. That is nearly twice the domestic need of all Malta.  

The investment in renewables in Malta can also be linked to the metro proposal. The approximately 4M meter cubed of inert waste generated from our proposed Malta metro project could be used – subject to detailed environmental studies – for land reclamation to form a nature reserve which would then be complemented by an offshore wind farm and/or an offshore solar farm. The renewable energy created would then be connected to the grid, thus offsetting the energy demands of the metro system and complementing the sustainability credentials of the whole project. 

 


 If you have an interesting idea or a great story to tell, be sure to reach out MaltaProfile on info@countryprofiler.com.

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