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Network News • 25-02-2021

A cumbersome yet practical monorail solution

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 25 February 2021

The prime minister is more optimistic that an efficient nationwide inoculation drive will render the country protected with ‘herd immunisation’, possibly by summer.

At the launch of the Malta Sustainability Forum 2021, President Dr George Vella expressed his view that transport is one of the biggest contributors to pollution, and whilst having more electric cars, we should also start thinking about other methods of transportation.

He is quoted as expressing his preference for a monorail system saying this would be effective for Malta. His excellency had many times expressed the view that the monorail system would be effective and that Malta should look into this system as a method of transport as it would result in fewer cars on the road.  He was unequivocal that the high density of cars contributes to pollution.

In his opinion, now is the time to think about new methods of transportation.  The excitement of having alternative and safe means of mass public transport seems to be gaining traction of late.  Many reporters uttered sound bites by “climate change” lobbyists proposing the construction of the monorail system.

This in theory involves adding both overground and underground lines running North-South and West-East, intersecting at key traffic junctions and feeding at its various stops into other above-ground public transport means.  Previous studies in 2014 showed that the cost of a modest 70km service line will reach €1.42 billion (less than seven years’ worth in EU cohesion funds).  Not a small ticket for a tiny economy with a mere €12.5 billion annual GDP.

Another suggestion by Dr Konrad Xuereb was to build an underground mass transportation system (as opposed to an overhead monorail structure) emphasising that with its substantial street-level infrastructure and its inability to reduce people’s dependence on cars, a monorail system would negate the opportunity to return traffic-choked urban centres to the community for leisure and enjoyment.

His preference for an underground tunnel system (think of London Tube structure) would also generate useful inert waste that would be used for sensitively located land reclamation projects to create a nature reserve, possibly complemented by wind or solar energy generation. This would complement the €100 proposed project for offshore wind farms.

The government, while keeping its cards close to its chest, contends that studies indicate a monorail system is only sustainable with a higher population otherwise the fare needs to be subsidised out of increased taxation.  In choosing a monorail solution, many systems are popular such as the Maglev model.

The latter deploys an advanced technology in which magnetic forces lift, propel, and silently guide a vehicle over a guide-way.  Another option is the hybrid system of buses and rail proposed by Bjorn Bonello, a planning consultant.  Whichever model is chosen, one has to make certain that stations are located close to residential areas otherwise few will use them.

Environmentalists criticise the current policy based on short-term road-widening strategies with lasting environmental damage and plead for one based on a long-term mass transit system that addresses the key challenges facing the island, namely population growth and sustainable transport.

The million-dollar question is who will foot the bill?  One may question if the island can afford such a high investment when the stock of ageing cars will soon have to be replaced by electric vehicles.  Due to the onset of the pandemic at a time of social distancing, the popularity of public transport has dropped while hail-ride car services are also becoming less popular.  Still, in 2019, statistics disclose that the rate of new vehicles was at a high rate of 45 a day while the number of licensed vehicles stood at almost 400,000.

Equally important is the fact that many of us do not walk as much as people walk in other countries.  Some suggest we provide more harbour ferries, as these will relieve the congestion if people walked to them rather than driving and expect to find a parking space nearby.

Much has been written about the frustration and inconvenience caused by our gridlocked system but the dangerous levels of pollution must receive equal attention because it is contributing to the early death of citizens.  The good news is that within a short span of three years, all of the seven flyovers of the busy Marsa Junction Project are now open to road users.  The €70 million project is being heralded by the government as “facilitating direct, uninterrupted connections between the major routes converging at the busiest intersection of the Southbound road network”.

Time will tell if the road-widening policy does eventually reduce travel time and the carbon footprint.  In our hectic life, few stop and contemplate how the proliferation of traffic is the reflection of acquired affluence by workers.  Certainly, cheap bank loans also further encourage drivers to buy another imported car.

The alternative use of electric vehicles is a healthy solution.  The local market presents an impressive choice of electric vehicles, yet they are still expensive. Some complain that only a few public charging points exist, so unless you own a garage, charging your electric vehicle is difficult. This is a fair comment given an increasing number of families live in flats.

Touching the subject of renewable energy, one notes how the installation of PV panels on rooftops has started yet Malta only generates 10% from such clean energy sources (average EU – 34%).  It is a dichotomy that while the economy is crippled by the pandemic and not firing on all cylinders (cost of wage supplements has pushed public debt up from 47% to 63% of GDP) yet car emissions are still high.

Domestic trade has suffered having over 47% of the working population only just coping due to a furlough scheme. With a daily number of Covid infections on the rise, and schools open, can we afford more social exclusion remedies such as in other EU countries that imposed a curfew and a partial lockdown as an effective cure to stem galloping infections?

The prime minister is more optimistic that an efficient nationwide inoculation drive will render the country protected with “herd immunisation”, possibly by summer.

Back to the subject of car emissions, the silver lining is that due to a 75% drop in tourist arrivals, so far we are enjoying cleaner air but this is a stop-gap relief and in the longer term a major decision is paramount to improve existing transport facilities.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Business Today on 25 February 2021
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