Railways of Malta


Archive Section

The Locomotive & Carriage Institution
Home Centenary 2011 Continental Visits Lectures Newsletters History Visits Pictorial Visits Narrative Seminars
The Railways of Malta:

By Peter Lindop.

From a 1999 Newsletter

Details the history of Maltease Railways and what what remains can be seen today

While on a recent holiday to the island of Malta I did some exploring of the old railway.  The contrast in what I found was amazing; in some places it was obvious, while in others there was no trace.  Perhaps the lack of evidence is not surprising, the line closed way back in 1931!

The first plan was laid before the Maltese Government in 1870; the island being one of the last countries in Europe without a railway.  After the usual change of plans; systems; people and companies, it was not until 28th February 1883 that the line finally opened.  It ran from the capital, Valletta, to Notabile station, on the outskirts of Rabat/Mdina  The line was a metre gauge (3ft 3 3/8in), single throughout (except at stations) and worked by four 0-6-0T steam locomotives.  Although not initially maintained very well, they gave long service.

Valletta station building was at street level by the main City gate, the two platforms were mainly in a tunnel 35ft below.  The lines crossed the main City ditch on a bridge (Porta Reale) before going onto a single-track tunnel.  This bridge, along with that at Porte des Bombes, was built of wood on the orders of the War Office for security reasons.  They were both later rebuilt of stone.  The tunnel was planned straight, but a curve had to be put in when a huge underground reservoir was found.  Except at the station, the tunnel was only 15 feet wide and 14 feet high.  Floriana station was next, 850 yards later (on a slight downward gradient) at a depth of 90 feet.  The tunnel continued for another 150 yards; the line then crossed a road and entered another 33-yard tunnel.  It then passed over another ditch (Fausse Braye).

The main headquarters and engineering workshops were set up at Harnrun (1 mile, 635 yards from Valletta).  This station was considered as important as the termini.  Birkirkara (nearly 3 miles away) marked the end of the profitable section; the line now crossing open countryside.  The original terminus at Notable was reached 6 miles 600 yards from Valletta.  The station was the subject of much public complaining, being in a cutting and then up a steep rough hill to reach the old city of Rabat.

In 1900, an extension opened to Museum station.  This involved a 770-yard tunnel under the hill on which stands the old capital Mdina.  The line ran on another 400 yards past the station, over a high embankment and a large single arch bridge.  The buffer stops were 7 miles, 240 yards from Valletta - with Mtarfa Barracks a possible extension up a steep hill.  There were differing plans over the early years for a network of lines over the island, but the Museum extension was the only one built.  The line had a total of 12 stations and halts.

The original private company did not run the railway very well, troubled by financial, legal and technical problems.  Locomotive failures meant a single train service, then there was a shut down in spring, 1889.  The government sued for breach of contract, and then closed the railway on 1 April 1890.  The line reopened on 25 February 1892, having been taken over and run by the government to stop it being sold off.  The railway's health began to flourish, with passengers returning.  Improvements were made to stations; new locomotives and rolling stock bought; a large backlog of track maintenance tackled and the Museum extension opened.  After World War 1, income began to suffer with competition from the electric tramway around Valletta (opened in 1905) and new road motor busses.  The end finally came on 31 March 1931, although it outlasted the electric tramway, which had closed on 16 December 1929!

The technical school and workshop, started in 1895 at Harnrun, continued until 1950, offering probably the best engineering apprenticeship on the island.

The Railway Today:

Starting at Valletta, here is a brief description of what I found - or did not find.  Even with an island-published book, it was still difficult at times to identify locations.  The main street-level station building was flattened during World War 11 bombing.  The stairway down to rail/platform level is still in use, situated between the Tourist Information office and the main City gate.  The bridge over the lower level of the main City ditch and the station tunnel (going back about 250 feet) are still in use by Yellow Garage.  The tunnel entrance to Floriana is still there, fenced off.  Along the tunnel there were two ventilation shafts, I think I found the remains of one!  Floriana station building and the start of the stairway down was only identified using the book.  The tunnel exit portal, and next short tunnel, was relatively easy to spot, while the fine stone bridge at Porta Reale is easily visible from the main road, just before the Porte des Bombes gateway  Property development means it is now impossible even to work out the track line for the next couple of miles, except for Hamrun station.  Here the station buildings, main workshops and offices are still in use - and appear almost unaltered - partly used by the local Scouts.  They are mainly used as the main factory and headquarters of the Malta Dairy Products Limited.

I did not have time to explore the middle section of the line, something for another visit!

The western end of the line seems to have disappeared into the farmland.  Notabile station still survives, situated by a local road.  While the cutting by the station has been filled in, a path leads down to the (fenced off) portal of the tunnel under Mdina.  The other end of the 770-yard tunnel is still in use by a mushroom farmer (I don't know how far in he uses).  The fine looking Museum station has been extended and converted into a restaurant.  The track bed going on past the station, over the high embankment, has been turned into a roadway.

I believe no items of rolling stock survive today.

The island is a wonderful place to visit; the railway remains are only one small distraction.  While travelling around, don't miss out on a ride on the buses (some ex London Transport) there is a different experience on every journey!