Last remnant of the Malta Railway
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Last remnant of the Malta Railway

The only surviving wagon that formed part of the Maltese railway has been transported for restoration from Ġnien l-Istazzjon (Station Gardens) in Birkirkara to an undisclosed “safe” location.

Lately in the care of Birkirkara local council, for the past 32 years the train carriage has been allowed to deteriorate through neglect and exposure to the elements with inadequate or no maintenance and regularly vandalised.

The Birkirkara mayor has applied for a grant from a scheme launched by the government earlier this year specifically aimed at supporting local council capital projects. It is hoped that the third-class carriage will now be restored at a cost of about €42,000. The restoration will be carried out in conjunction with the Malta Railway Foundation.

The mayor plans to ensure that, once the restoration has been completed, the carriage will again be kept in the gardens but it will placed within a protected glass structure and CCTV cameras will be installed to deter vandalism. The council also wants to turn an adjacent childcare centre into a train museum.

While, in the broader scheme of things, the restoration of the railway carriage constitutes only a modest piece of Maltese history and culture, the Birkirkara mayor is to be commended for taking steps, together with the Malta Railway Foundation, to try to salvage this small but interesting element of Malta’s social and transport history.

However, the mayor’s action raises a number of questions.

Why was this century-old train carriage allowed to languish unmaintained and vandalised for so long by whoever was responsible for it over the years?

The answer given will, no doubt, be lack of funding – as well as, it must be suspected, maladministration.

What structures should be put in place to avoid similar occurrences in future and are there other less prominent historical sites and artefacts being similarly neglected? Where does responsibility lie?

Starting at the top, the Local Government Minister clearly has an important role in setting the policy. His oversight responsibilities include both local councils and the cultural heritage. But the person to whom he looks for day-to-day supervision, action and enforcement is the Superintendent for Cultural Heritage.

Under the Cultural Heritage Act, the Superintendent has a wide range of responsibilities and powers. His mission is to ensure the protection and accessibility of Malta’s cultural heritage.

His functions – all of which have a bearing on the case of the railway carriage – include the compilation of a national inventory of cultural property belonging to the State; to exercise surveillance over the protection, conservation, restoration and maintenance of cultural property; to promote research and best practices in the conservation and presentation of artefacts, collections, monuments and sites; and generally to advise them on matters relating to cultural heritage and property.

In an ideal world, even the relatively unimportant case of the railway carriage at Birkirkara would have come to his attention. However, the fact is that the Superintendent is grossly under-resourced and has been since 2002 when the office was established. He must rely for information on such matters on the local councils themselves.

It is imperative that a formal framework for liaison between the local councils and the Superintendence is established and thereafter maintained. The neglect which led to the state of the old railway carriage deteriorating for decades might otherwise have been avoided.

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