A chance encounter and a promise made in London in the 1980s induced a man’s endeavour to keep the memory of the Malta Railway alive.

Paul Galea, a former TV director, met Brigadier Bernard L. Rigby, the author of the book The Malta Railway, at a model engineering exhibition in Wembley. The book, published by Oakwood Press in 1970, recounts the ill-fated story of the ‘vapur ta’ l-art’, as the local train was amiably called, which operated from Valletta to Mdina from 1883 to 1931.

“Brigadier Rigby had fallen in love with our island and he asked me to promise him to look after the remains of the Malta Railway. Having no other option, I accepted but little did I know what I was in for,” said Mr Galea, who is the founder and chairman of the Malta Railway Foundation.

He said there was little to no interest in the railway at the time except for a few individuals, mentioning Nicholas Azzopardi of Attard, who has his own private museum, and the late Anthony Pisani of Ħamrun. He researched the subject for over 20 years before producing a documentary for the Department of Information with friend and colleague Paul Azzopardi in 2010. Titled Il-Vapur tal-Art – The Malta Railway, the documentary was screened during the Notte Bianca of that year.

“From then onwards, thanks to the social media and the local press, we embarked on a programme to generate more awareness about the railway. Interest has indeed grown, even among foreigners,” Mr Galea noted.

Above: A painting of the Maltese train arriving at Museum Station in Rabat by John N. Scerri of Canada. Bottom: A painting of the train at Ħamrun Railway Station by John N. Scerri of Canada.Above: A painting of the Maltese train arriving at Museum Station in Rabat by John N. Scerri of Canada. Bottom: A painting of the train at Ħamrun Railway Station by John N. Scerri of Canada.

The Malta Railway Foundation originally started as an informal group of railway enthusiasts who organised a number of location visits and exhibitions. The foundation was eventually set up in 2013, with the aim of encouraging a better understanding, and the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Malta Railway and the Malta Tramways, and to undertake the rehabilitation and restoration of any cultural property.

Members, also known as ‘Raiders of the Lost Railway’, participate in events and activities organised by the foundation, which works closely with the local councils of places where the railway and the trams once operated.

Last year, the voluntary organisation saw the restoration of the only remaining carriage of the Malta Railway and is currently setting up a museum together with the Birkirkara local council at the premises of the former Birkirkara Railway Station. Work on the project is being funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

A highlight in the foundation’s calendar is an annual event organised with the 1st Ħamrun Scout Group titled Destinazzjoni Ħamrun, which is taking place this weekend.

“The sixth edition is featuring a wide variety of exhibits: from steam engine models to original paintings to a working model of the Ħamrun Railway Complex,” enthused Mr Galea.

“Other exhibits include pennies, the currency used in Malta at the time, postage stamps and railway tickets. The latest additions are a number of clocks, some of which are from the era.”

Visitors will have the opportunity to ask questions and can also tour the Ħamrun Railway Station. Those who had relatives working for the railway are encouraged to share their stories with members.

On January 27, the foundation is organising a visit to the Nicholas Railway Museum in Attard and, in May, it will participate in the Malta Robotics Olympiad. More information about these events and other location visits can be obtained during this weekend’s event.

A train model at the Malta Railway Foundation exhibition.A train model at the Malta Railway Foundation exhibition.

A timeline of events

• A railway was first proposed in 1870 by entrepreneur J. Scott Tucker in a bid to reduce the journey time from Valletta to Mdina from three hours to less than half an hour.

• In 1879, Wells-Owen & Elwes Consulting Engineers, Westminster, London, were engaged to design the railway.

• The first official train left Valletta Station for Notabile Railway Station, situated under Saqqajja Hill in Rabat, on Wednesday, February 28, 1883, at 3pm. The journey took about 25 minutes.

• A timetable was advertised in The Malta Times and the United Service Gazette on March 3, 1883.

• The opening took place almost 60 years after Locomotion No. 1 carried the first passengers on the Stockton & Darlington Railway, on September 27, 1825 and 25 years after the London Underground.

• The Malta Railway Company Ltd went bankrupt by 1890 and the line was closed on April 1, 1890, by the Supervision Board and the government of Malta.

• The government acquired the railway and reopened the line on January 25, 1892, after several improvements were made.

• In 1895, plans were made to extend the line to service the new Mtarfa Barracks. The extension was opened in 1900 at a cost of £20,000.

• In 1903, the Malta Tramways was founded and it ran a service from 1905, with some of its routes running parallel to the railway line. These routes ran between Valletta, the Three Cities, Żebbuġ and Birkirkara. The competition had an immediate effect on the finances of the railway.

• In 1929, the Malta Tramways ceased operations as the company was not financially viable.

• On March 31, 1931, the Malta Railway shut down due to economic insufficiency. Buses had been introduced and were serving all destinations on the island.

Destinazzjoni Ħamrun is being held at the Ħamrun Scouts headquarters on Saturday between 10am and 8.30pm and on Sunday between 10am and 7.30pm. To become a member of the foundation, send an e-mail to maltarailway@gmail.com. The organisation can also be contacted through its Facebook page.

Railway staff at the Ħamrun station in 1910.Railway staff at the Ħamrun station in 1910.

The Valletta terminus. Photo coloured by Edgar Vella.The Valletta terminus. Photo coloured by Edgar Vella.

A Malta Tramways ticket.A Malta Tramways ticket.

A Malta Railway ticket.A Malta Railway ticket.

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