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Il-Vapur Tal-Art: Malta's Mythical Long-Gone Railway

by Chiara Micallef

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Old Malta train exiting Valletta and crossing the ditch
* Cover Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Il-Vapur tal-Art is forever eternalised by Kilin in his autobiographical novel Fuq il-Ghajn ta' San Bastjan and by Greenfields' song under the same name — was a revolutionary mode of transportation. It was introduced to the Maltese islands during the second half of the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. 

The train was christened il-vapur tal-art, as the Maltese noted a striking similarity between the newly-introduced train and the steam-engined sea vessels and boats.

Building The Railway Track

Acquiring land to construct the railway was an issue from the onset, and while the track was proposed in the 1870s, construction began nearly a decade later. The original plan was to construct a railway line between Valletta and Mdina, with the track passing several zones that hold both civil and military significance.

train tunnel formation surrounded by huge rocks 

Tunnel construction, The Malta Railway Foundation, via Facebook 

After much back and forth, The Malta Railway Co Ltd was set up in the 1880s to build an 11-kilometre single-track line from Valletta to Mdina. The railway line intersected 18 roads, 14 of which were manned – each one of these 14 intersections housed a room where a worker, known as tal-kantina, was stationed and armed with a red flag. 

His job was to close off intersectional roads to avoid any calamities or casualties. The train line was inaugurated on the 28th of February 1883, and the first voyage took place at 3 pm – it took 25 minutes for the vapur tal-art to travel from Valletta to Mdina.

The Twelve Stations

The first station was underground on Ordnance Street in Valletta, while the terminal was found just below City Gate. After leaving the first station, the train would proceed to the Valletta ditch tunnel and into the Floriana Station, close to the Argotti Gardens. The next stop was accessed through another underpass within St Philip Bastions, near Porte des Bombes. The train would roll on to the Hamrun Station, nowadays the Hamrun Scouts premises.

a map of the old Malta Railway track 

Malta Railway Map, The Malta Railway Foundation, via Facebook

The Hamrun station was significant, as it housed two platforms, storage sheds for the train and a double track. By 1900 a workshop was built to carry out repairs, engineering and maintenance work on the train, as the previous workshop was located quite far away, within the Bormla dockyard. 

The next stop was Msida, followed by Santa Venera and the two major platforms at Birkirkara's Gnien l-Istazzjon. Three further stops were located in Balzan, San Anton and Attard where a 25-yard tunnel led to Rabat. A further extension was intended to pass right beneath Mdina and the Domus Romana, construction came to a halt and the plan to extend the line to the Mtarfa Hospital and Barracks was never executed.

facade of old Birkirkara Train Station

Birkirkara Station, The Malta Railway Foundation, via Facebook

The Carriages 

The train's carriages were destroyed and none were preserved, through historical sources, we know that they were made up of olive-coloured wood and black-painted iron frames. Malta's train was equipped with first and third class, with passenger seats parallel to one another on both sides of the aisle. Up until the introduction of electricity, the train was illuminated by candlelight.

Change of Ownership 

The Malta Railway Company Ltd went bankrupt in 1890, forcing the closing down of the Malta Railway. As a result of this, the local government took over the project and invested further in its infrastructure to reopen the railway again in 1892. For the next 39 years, the government handled railway operations, maintenance and upgrades. An extension, proposed in 1895, was inaugurated in 1900 to further connect the Mtarfa barracks to the rest of the railway. 

The Malta Railway was not the only railroad line that ran through the Maltese Islands. When the Grand Harbour Breakwater was commissioned in 1904, an additional railroad was constructed through Malta to transport the materials needed for assembly. However, this was dismantled and sent back to England once the breakwater project was completed.

'Barracca Lifts – The Quickest Way to the City'

This was the slogan used to promote the Barrakka lifts constructed in 1905 by Macartney, McElroy & Co Ltd. This 23ft lift was made up of two cabins, with each one able to accommodate 12 passengers at a time.

When the train got to Valletta, the operator would offer an additional connection to the Grand Harbour through the use of the Barrakka Lifts, which made their way from Lascaris Wharf to the Upper Barrakka Gardens.

a lift attached to Valletta fortifications with the harbour in the background

Old Upper Barrakka Lift Valletta, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A Steady Decline In Use 

Advances in technology marked the beginning of the end for the vapur tal-art, as in 1905 tramways were established in Malta, harming the railway's use and finances. This year brought with it another hard blow, as the first buses were also introduced in Malta – buses became extremely popular in the 1920s, contributing to a sharp decline in tram and railway use.

Revenue for the Malta Railway decreased dramatically – with a reported loss of around 500 tickets a day. Before the 1910s, the Maltese frequently journeyed to Rabat or Valletta, however, this decreased heavily when cinemas and opera houses started popping up in different towns all over the island.

Tragic Accidents 

The first major accident on the Malta Railway happened on the 25th of January 1893, when Dominic Vassallo fell from a moving carriage and got crushed to death on the 5 pm journey to Valletta. 

The second major accident happened on the 22nd of July 1923 when the train was derailed after crashing into a large herd of cattle between Santa Venera and Hamrun – where the present church of St Francis stands today. Neither the shepherd nor the passengers were injured, 34 cows were killed, and others suffered severe injuries.  

The End Of An Era 

Malta was awarded self-government in 1921, which meant the Malta Railway was passed on to the Maltese Government and the elected deputies. While no political party dared to kill off the project, all parliamentary and opposition members agreed that it was an albatross around the government's neck – an accursed inheritance nobody wanted to risk touching. When Strickland became Head of Ministry in 1927, he decided to kill the project that was forever running at a loss once and for all. 

The Malta Railway stopped operations in March 1931, with an announcement published in the Malta Government Gazette marking its end: 

"His Excellency the Governor has been pleased to direct that the Malta Railway shall close down at the end of the present financial year, namely on the 31st instant. For some time, the railway has been running at an increasing financial loss owing to the public's use of other and more convenient means of transport. His Excellency trusts that the organised motor bus services will be able to meet the demands of the travelling public. Those railway employees who will not be given employment in other government departments will be retired on pension or gratuity."

All of the Malta Railway assets, including the ten engines, 23 carriages, rails and benches were disposed of by the Treasury Department of the time. No effort was made to preserve parts of it for future generations to display – as is customary in numerous European countries. 

Politicians at the time saw no value in these treasures, save for the money they were worth in terms of steel and metal scraps.

horse carriages and people passing by the old Valletta Railway Station

Old Valletta Railway Station, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The railway tunnels underneath Valletta were used as air raid shelters during WWII and Mussolini wrongfully claimed that an Italian air raid obliterated the Malta Railway system, even though nine years had passed since it was last used.

The skeleton of the Malta Railway once again regained popularity in the 1960s, seeing a surge in British trainspotters and railfans visiting the space before urban development eradicated its last traces. 

The Malta Railway Today

Two run-down luggage trolleys were discovered in the St Philip Bastions tun nels — one of the numerous underpasses still in existence. Bridges, stations and the Floriana ticket office still stand to this day, along with the Birkirkara and Rabat stations. Other stations were destroyed or closed off to make way for new urban projects. One third-class carriage was stored at Gnien l-Istazzjon – which is currently undergoing plans to turn it into the Birkirkara Historical Malta Railway Museum.

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About Chiara Micallef

Chiara is a content writer with a love for delicious food, beautiful art, music, travel and bizarre history facts. 

She enjoys nothing more than reading, trying out new dishes and petting cats.