The Forgotten Malta Railway: What Could Have Been

A major factor in the demise of the railway was the arrival of the first buses in 1905, which rose in popularity in the 1920s

Malta had a technological wonder that once linked its capital, Valletta, to the ancient city of Mdina in the late 19th and early 20th century. This wonder was the Malta Railway, a single-track railway that ran from 1883 to 1931 and left behind a remarkable legacy that is still present on the island in various forms.

S. Tucker originally suggested building a railway in Malta in 1870 as he wanted to shorten the arduous three-hour journey between Valletta and Mdina. The original plan intended for a John Barraclough Fell-designed narrow-gauge railway network. This scheme, however, was abandoned in 1879 in favour of a proposal created by the London-based engineering company Wells-Owen & Elwes. The line was scheduled to open by the end of 1881.

This single-track, metre-gauge railway linked the cities of Valletta and Mdina as well as other nearby towns. Notably, the first two stations, both of which were underground, were in Valletta and Floriana. To ensure traffic crossing safety, there were 18 level crossings, 14 of which employed personnel. Roads were abruptly closed when trains were nearby. The railway was first constructed with rails that weighed 42 pounds per foot, but after the government took control in 1890, they were replaced with heavier rails that weighed 60 pounds per foot to accommodate larger engines.

A major factor in the demise of the railway was the arrival of the first buses in 1905, which rose in popularity in the 1920s.  Consequently, the Malta Railway terminated operations on March 31, 1931. Additionally, the Valletta station was damaged during World War II and eventually destroyed in the 1960s to make room for Freedom Square, which led to the closure of the Malta Railway.

However, the Malta Railway left lasting footprints across the island despite having a brief history. Many of its buildings, including the stations at Birkirkara and Mdina, numerous bridges, and tunnels, are still in existence today. In addition, several streets have names that refer to the time of the railway, such as Railway Street in Mtarfa and Railway Road in Santa Venera. The ticket office at Floriana remains as a silent witness to the past, while a former railway tunnel under St. Philip’s Gardens was reopened in 2011, occasionally welcoming visitors. Lastly, the Ħamrun station has found a new purpose as the headquarters of the 1st Ħamrun Scout Group.

The Malta Railway may have vanished from the island’s landscape, but its memory lives on in the remnants that have withstood the test of time. Unfortunately, we are just left to wonder what could have happened if the Malta Railway had persisted through the passing of time.