Memories from Malta and Gozo “Il-Vapur tal-art” (The Ship that Travels on Land) revolutionised UK travel and eventually Malta’s My reminiscences on the Sussex Bluebell Railway and our old Malta Railway

By Albert Fenech

Bluebell Railway, Horsted Keynes, Sussex

When the then coal and later steam train was introduced in the world, it was immediately dubbed “Il-Vapur tal-Art” (The Ship that Travels on Land) in Malta because it was inconceivable that any kind of lengthy travel in such a short time could be achieved by anything but a ship.

Previous to that any kind of land travel was restricted to horses and carriages and automobiles were still in their very early stages and only available to the very rich and daring. 

When my family left Malta to emigrate to England in 1954 and I was aged just seven, the days of trains and trams in Malta had long been over to be replaced by public buses and private trucks, vans and vehicles.

Imagine my surprise and excitement therefore when I first entered  a railway station in London where we lived and I saw and heard a powerful coal-powered engine towing carriages chugging its way into the station enshrouded with clouds of smoke, the chug-chugging of its wheels and the whistle as it approached the station! 

The station itself was a hive of activity with passengers surging forward to mount the carriages, railway pushing trolleys of goods to be loaded and the general hustle and bustle of a busy station.

Horsted Keynes Railway Station

In later years, to my disappointment all changed to first steam-driven and then electric powered engines and most of these scenes disappeared. Today’s wiseguys will say “ah – but remember all this was less pollution and good for you”. Yes, but at the time that meant nothing to a young boy and there was no awareness of such factors. 

Hence on my much later adoption of Horsted Keynes in West Sussex as my second home the wonderful attractions of the Blubell Raiway filled me with abundant joy.

Running over a distance of 17.7 kilometres, this heritage line is almost entirely in West Sussex except for an incursion into Sheffield Park in East Sussex and is managed by the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society and uses only steam engines. 

It operates between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead with intermediate stations at Horsted Keynes and Kingscote.  

When visiting HK there were ample times when I popped over to the station to board to East Grinstead to do my shopping or enjoy lunch. 

It brought all my memories of older days when boarding a coal or steam train was a reverie!

The Malta Railway when it existed

All this was brought to mind with the very recent inauguration of a museum for Malta’s old railway. 

Yes, although of small distances, Malta once did have a train and tram service and naturally this revived all my memories of my past train journeys and the Bluebell Railway I used frequently. 

Although islands are small we have never been insular and have always been on a par with international developments because of endless seafaring to and from Malta bringing the latest trends. 

With the development of railroads worldwide, the question clamoured – why do we not have a railway to be on a par?

One of the Malta Stations

Malta’s only railway line was inauguratd in February in 1883 and ran from th new capital Valletta to the old capital in Mdina with stations along the way at Floriana, Hamrun, Birkirkara, Attard and Rabat. Engines were obviously coal or steam. 

The iine was single-track in one metre gauge and continued to operate unti 1931 by which time the operation of a public bus service was in operation, covered the whole of Malta and was relatively cheaper. 

Various parts still exist today, adapted to other uses, such as the Birkirkara and Mdina stations. Some roads still bear the names of the old line like Railway Road in Santa Venera (close to Birkirkara) and Railway Street in Mtarfa (close to Mdina).

One of the engines used in Malta

The Valletta main station was extensively damaged during WWII and was demolised in the 60s and is now the site of Malta’s Parliament. The Hamrun Station is now the HQ of the Hamrun cout Group; the former Birkirkara Station was used as a childcare centre but is now the site of the new railway museum with a restored garden and a restored carriage repositioned. 

In 1998 the station at Attard was converted into a small private museum featuring the railway, documents and other memorabilia and line and engine models. It is open to the general public n demand. 

The former Mdina Station ws converted into a restaurant in 1986 and contained many pictures as well as a model locomotive. It cosed in 2011 but re-opened in 2016 and is named L-Istazzjon (The Station). 

The recently inaugurated railway museum is at Bikirkara in the garden previously related to the station. The project cost €670,000 from EU and local funds. 

Almost parallel to the development of the railway line the Malta Tramways Ltd started operating electric-powered trams on 23rd February to 1905 and lasted to 1929.

The inauguration of the tram in 1905

Unlike the railway it covered more parts of Mata but similarily ran on a metre-wide track. One could board a side bi-level tram carriage or ride top Oberdeck. 

The tram operating from Valletta ran to: 

*Marsa, Paola and Cospicua

*Hamrun, Qormi and Zebbug

*Hamrun and Birkirkara 

This therefore included parts of south as well as central-south Malta whereas the train headed to north Malta.

Tram leaving Valletta through Portes des Bombes in Floriana

The tracks enabled private vehicles and newly-introduced public buses to run alongside but the whole operation went bankrupt on December 15 in 1929.

Public road transport bringing to an end the train and trams services

As these developments were ongoing but so was the increasing development of a public bus service and eventually train and tram disappeared. 

ALBERT FENECH

salina46af@gmail.com

 

Author

  • Albert Fenech

    Albert Fenech was born in Malta in 1946. His family moved to England in 1954 where he spent boyhood and youth before in 1965 returning to Malta. He spent eight years as a journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking a career in HR Management Administration with a leading international construction company in Libya, later with Malta Insurance Brokers, and finally STMicroelectronics Malta, employing 3,000 employees, Malta’s leading industrial manufacturer. Throughout he actively pursued international freelance journalism/ broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel. He has written in a number of publications both in Malta and overseas, as well as publishing two e-books. For the last eight years he had been writing a “Malta Diary” with pictures for Lyn Funnel’s B-C-ingU.com international travel magazine.

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