Malta’s road transport sector is in the midst of a transformation as the island is seeking to upgrade and improve many facets of its infrastructure. While huge investments over past years have turned Malta into a major hub for international trade and transport with a flourishing freeport, the island’s expanding economy is putting pressure on its road network that has failed to keep pace with this growth. Keen to see the sector heading in a new direction, the Maltese authorities are implementing novel concepts and are willing to partner with global innovators to create a better connected and more efficient transport system. The island’s bus system has seen numerous reforms in recent years and is now experiencing a steady increase in passengers. However, experts say Malta also needs to consider alternative modes of public transport and propose the introduction of a light rail or trolleybus route.
The Changing Face of Transport
As an island at the centre of the Mediterranean, Malta has been part of the global maritime network for centuries. The Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Normans, the Arabs and the Knights of St John used the island as a commerce and trade hub. The small nation experienced its first major upturn as a trading port when it became a British colony in the 19th century. The colonial masters also drew up a blue-print for a railway system, consisting of a single line from Valletta to Mdina. Opened in 1883, the service was discontinued in 1931 in favour of a bus service. Malta’s first commercial airport was built during the 1920s on the site of a military one. A new facility was opened in 1958 to cope with the growing demand, with a new runway added in 1977. The current Malta International Airport (MIA) opened its doors in 1992 and is still considered to be among the best in Europe. The Malta Freeport was established at the end of the 1980s and has greatly expanded its capacity throughout the years. In the run-up to Malta’s EU membership in 2004, the Freeport’s terminal management was privatised, two years after the partial privatisation of the airport. EU membership has also provided Malta with access to funding programmes that have helped with upgrading the road network and that remain an essential source of finance.
"We have seen recent investments in Malta, but there was a long period where nothing had been done in terms of implementing intelligent transport systems. Malta needs to catch up fast, especially if we want to move towards taller buildings and highrise developments. We have plans to create a centre of excellence on parking solutions in Malta. By making parking smarter, people spend less time looking for parking spots and driving around, which often causes more congestion."
Angelo Dalli, CEO of Q-Free Trafiko
Malta’s transport sector as a whole has grown considerably in recent years. Malta is one of the most densely populated countries in the world – an island nation of just 316 square kilometres and home to some 440,000 people. Car density is also one of the highest in the European Union, with some 360,000 motor vehicles registered despite the short distances on the island. Most passenger travel between the island and mainland Europe is by air, while most goods come and go by sea. The arrival of low-cost airlines, the expansion of the cargo business and Malta’s growing importance as a maritime hub have also influenced the sector’s performance. Similar to other infrastructure-intensive economic activities, the sector is directly influencing and affecting Malta’s development and competitiveness. It is reported that commercial and private transport services account for 12% of Malta’s GDP, which is above the EU average of 7%.
The authorities are aware of the crucial importance of a functioning transport system for business and foreign investment, so they are keen to address structural issues that impede economic growth and competitiveness. The Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure has set as one of its priorities the development of an integrated transport policy, acknowledging that the local transport system has not always received the attention it deserves. The increased use of water taxis and sea links in the harbour area, as well as a tunnel connecting Malta and its sister island Gozo are some of the concepts currently being looked into. Proposals for the future also include moving commuters off the roads and onto a simple underground railway or a monorail system, which currently does not exist in Malta.
Malta International Airport
Foreign investment plays an important role in the transport sector. A consortium including Vienna International Airport holds 40% of MIA, while Vienna International Airport also holds another 10% directly. The government holds 20% and another 30% is traded on the Malta Stock Exchange. The Freeport at Marsaxlokk has long served as a strategic point on Malta’s coast and today is one of the largest transshipment and logistics centres in the Mediterranean. Yildirim Holding, a Turkish container port operator, holds 50% of Malta Freeport Terminals, with the other 50% of the shares being held by Terminal Link. The shareholders of Terminal Link are CMA CGM, the third-largest shipping line in the world, and China Merchants Holdings International (CMHI). Malta’s second port, the Port of Valletta, which handles roll-on/roll-off operations, trailers, containers, continental cargo and vehicles, is operated by Valletta Gateway Terminals (VGT), a joint venture between Portek International of Singapore, a subsidiary of the Japanese Mitsui Group, and the Maltese Tumas Group. The island’s bus system was taken over by Spanish transport group Autobuses Urbanos de Leon (ALESA) in 2015 after German owned Arriva Group exited the Maltese market.
"Air Malta is part of the country’s critical national infrastructure. The number one priority for the airline is its turnaround. I will be working to see that Air Malta is put back on its feet and that the necessary restructuring takes place to ensure a bright and successful future for the company."
Konrad Mizzi, Minister for Tourism
2017 has been an exceptional year for Malta International Airport. Passenger movements have reached a new high of six million. Traffic at Malta International Airport grew by 17.5% over the previous year on the back of a 15% growth in aircraft movements and a 18% increase in seat capacity. The seat load factor also increased from 81.1% in 2015 to 82.4% in 2017, signalling a marked efficiency by airlines to fill up available seats. More than 35 airlines connect the Maltese Islands to 95 airports in 86 cities. The top markets for 2017 were the United Kingdom, which saw an increase of 8.9%, Italy, which grew by 15%, Germany, which grew by 21%, France, registering also a growth of 21%, and Belgium, which registered a growth of 109.2%. Enhanced winter operations by low-cost airlines such as Ryanair, SAS and Wizz Air, as well as further capacity being deployed by Air Malta, Lufthansa and EasyJet, are being seen as the main reasons for this performance. Due to the tourism sector’s efforts to establish Malta as a year-round destination, coupled with Malta’s increased attractiveness for city-break travel and a flourishing economy, MIA is expecting 2018 to be another record year with some 6.5 million passengers. To cater for this growth, the terminal building is currently being refurbished, including additional check-in desks and a security area that is double its current footprint.
Linking the island with other parts of the world such as Central Asia, the Middle East and the Far East, Emirates operates flights from Malta to Dubai, while Turkish Airlines began a Malta-Istanbul service in May 2013 and now operates 12 flights a week, offering connecting flights to many parts of the world. Air Malta, which operates a fleet of eight aircraft, has long been considered of crucial importance to the economy as a whole, providing a regular and vital link for tourists and business travellers. However, after years of loss-making and in spite of a restructuring programme, approved by the European Commission in 2012, the airline is still facing financial difficulties.
Aerial view of Birgu
Strong growth has been recorded in the maritime sector. In 2015, the Malta Freeport reported a record year, breaking the 3 million TEU mark for the first time, handling 3.06 million TEU, an increase of 6.8% on 2014. In 2016, the Freeport built on this success and recorded 3.08 million TEU - a figure that should have risen to 3.2 million TEU in 2017 if the projections turn out to be correct. Malta Freeport Terminals has regular network connections with over 122 ports worldwide, over 60 of which are in the Mediterranean.
Cruise business has also become an important revenue source for Malta. In 2017, more than 670,000 cruise passengers were recorded, a rise of 7% over 2016. These results encouraged the government to announce the development of a second cruise liner terminal in Gozo in an effort to attract tourism to the sister island.
Freeport Aerial view
Malta’s road system is currently the focus of much attention. Due to the island’s small size and the high rate of car ownership, it comes as no surprise that road congestion is a major problem at times and finding ways to ease the traffic flow has become a top priority. Malta’s road network spans some 2,000 kilometres and its road infrastructure is one of the densest in the EU, at approximately 617 km of road/1,000 square kilometres. Reconstruction and upgrading work is being carried out on a number of routes that are part of the Trans-European Transport Networks (TENT), and the recently re-elected government has launched a programme to resurface all of Malta’s roads in the coming seven years. EU funding has played a pivotal role in road building and maintenance and will continue to be an important source of financing. In an effort to address traffic congestion, the Maltese government is also in the process of installing an intelligent traffic management system. The system includes variable message and lane-changing signs and will provide motorists with real-time traffic updates. This is intended to effectively direct traffic and limit congestion.
In an effort to relieve pressure, the country upgraded its bus system in 2011 and the Arriva Group brought in a fleet of modern, environmentally friendly buses. However, the company struggled to get to grips with the Maltese market and the route network. In 2014, less than three years into its 10-year concession, Arriva bowed out by mutual consent with the government and the service was temporarily nationalised. A year later, Spanish operator Autobuses de Leon was chosen by the government to take over Malta Public Transport following a competitive call. In just over a year, Malta Public Transport has increased the fleet from 260 buses to 400 buses, while a travel card launched in July 2015 has been deemed a huge success, with over 240,000 individuals now holding a so-called Tallinja bus card. This means that more than half the population is in possession of a Tallinja bus card, which compares very well with the take-up of similar cards in other small European states or large European cities.
Going forward, it will remain a priority to encourage more people to use buses and to attract additional investment in public transport. In another attempt, Malta’s government has allowed car drivers to ride scooters of up to 125cc. They do not require an additional licence but need to complete a ten-hour driving training course. A number of short-term measures have also been introduced, including free public transport for 18-year olds and tax reductions for companies who incentivise alternative transport for employees.
Malta Public Transport buses - Valletta bus station
Fit for the Future
Malta’s small size and the fact that the island is densely populated create unique and challenging traffic situations. A lot of congestion is related to the layout of Malta’s road network, and there is increasing awareness that the island needs to use the available space better. Industry professionals say that Malta needs to introduce more flyovers and tidal lanes, as well as smart systems that can change speed limits, coordinate the timing of traffic lights and even suggest alternative roads. The upgrading of transport infrastructure is becoming increasingly important due to the island’s move towards taller buildings and high-rise developments. In addition to intelligent traffic management systems, in the longer term, Malta should also consider other modes of transport. A simple underground railway or a monorail system is an attractive prospect, but the economic case for it has yet to be made. However, while monorails are expensive, experts say that a light rail or a trolleybus route could be an alternative. Meanwhile, bike sharing companies are moving into Malta, and the government has announced its support for car-sharing initiatives. Transport Malta, the authority overseeing all transport in Malta, already issued a call for the development of a national, app-based car-sharing programme.
"In a few years’ time, Malta’s road infrastructure will look significantly different. We have launched a programme to resurface the entire road network and are also committed to building a tunnel between Malta and Gozo. We are also aiming to identify a suitable mass transport system for the Maltese Islands by the end of this legislature."
Ian Borg, Minister for Transport, Infrastructure & Capital Projects
Around the world, public-private partnerships have proven to be an effective way of expanding and maintaining transport infrastructure, and Malta believes the future lies in greater private sector participation for long-term projects. The island offers interesting prospects for engineering and construction firms and is willing to partner with companies that can introduce innovative technologies or materials. The long-term vision for the sector includes a greener and cleaner Malta. This also means encouraging innovation and further research, as well as the promotion of environmentally friendly technologies. Malta is keen to become a part of the transport sector’s journey into the future: its small market provides the right environment for companies looking at commercialising ideas, as well as testing new transport products and systems. With big data and the internet of things affecting traditional transport models like never before, Malta has recognised that it must continue to evolve and respond to changing transport demands and dynamics.
"Malta has established itself as an international centre of maritime excellence, and we have all the right elements in place for the aviation industry to prosper. Good transport connections and economic activity are also intertwined. In the area of land transport, we are considering new, alterative transport systems and technologies, to be used alongside our bus service, which could provide an alternative to vehicles on the road.
James Piscopo, Chairman and CEO of Transport Malta
Photo Credits: Viewing Malta