Opinion Piece – “Well . . . it’s election time again and we are once again being promised a ‘fixed link’ between Gozo and Malta. This time round the proposal is for a highway tunnel instead of a bridge, but before questions of the timing, technology and cost have been answered, we should ask ourselves why a highway is the best means of transporting people between the two islands.
It seems that all previous thinking about the Malta-Gozo link has assumed that a road link for cars, trucks and buses is the only mode of transport worth considering, so the debate has been limited to ‘bridge versus tunnel.’ But if the purpose of this fixed link is to transport people back and forth between Malta and Gozo for employment, commerce, medical treatment, education, entertainment and family events, and to do so in a safe, convenient and cost-effective manner, we should take off the blinkers and consider other transport strategies.
Gozo Channel Ferries carry vehicles, goods and people back and forth between Mgarr and Cirkewwa, but mooring these vessels and loading/unloading these vehicles is time consuming, which slows down the transport of people.
Transport Malta provides good bus service on both islands, but this service is hampered by traffic congestion. The construction of a free-access highway link between the islands will only compound these problems.
A fixed highway link would require at least three traffic lanes, assuming that two lanes will be used in the direction of ‘rush hour traffic’ and one lane for traffic running against the flow. This 3-lane system would require the use of signals (and/or mechanical barricades) to change the direction of traffic in the ‘middle lane.’ And motorists must learn to respect these signals, otherwise it would be necessary to build a four-lane highway to avoid fatal collisions.
There has been much discussion about the entry points for a tunnel or bridge crossing the Gozo Channel. An acceptable gradient to allow maritime traffic under a highway bridge, or over a submerged highway tunnel would require that the ramps start quite far from the natural shoreline on both sides.
While we accept that suspension bridges over open water are less reliable than the existing Gozo Channel Ferries, highway tunnels are plagued by the accumulation of engine exhaust. Vehicles operated by non-professional drivers who are tired after a long day’s work, or a late night’s partying, will inevitably lead to accidents near, or within the tunnel. And finally, free access to such a highway link will result in an increase in traffic on both Gozo and Malta, something which will not be welcomed on either island.
Other means of transporting people have been tried but failed. In recent times we have seen two helicopter operators and a float plane service abandon the Gozo market. And the proposed high-speed passenger-only boat service will be affected by foul weather, have a limited capacity and be restricted to destinations along the coast. Something different is called for.
Let’s consider running a Metro train under the Gozo Channel. Such a ‘guided vehicle’ would have many advantages over automobiles operating on a public highway: namely safety, comfort, energy efficiency, environmental quality and reduced capital expenditure.
Safety – A rail system operated by professionals using state-of-the-art signalling is much less prone to accidents than automobiles operated by tired and impatient drivers.
Comfort – Metro trains would provide passengers comfortable air-conditioned transportation, day & night, year round.
Energy Efficiency – An electrified metro would have a single source of clean power which would be delivered to the trains by a ‘third rail’, or possibly by means of modern battery technology.
Capital Expenditure – The right-of-way required by a ‘guided vehicle (i.e. a train) is about half the width of a single highway lane, and it carries many more people than a car, or even a bus. Automobiles on highways are notorious for carrying only one or two passengers.
Environmental quality – An electrified train system would be environmentally friendly. There would be no exhaust fumes in the underground portions of the Metro system or anywhere along the right-of-way.
While we are thinking about a fixed rail link between Malta and Gozo, let’s consider extending the Metro from Victoria, Gozo to the Freeport on the south-eastern tip of Malta.
This line could have intermediate stations at – for example – Xewkija Industrial Estate, Mgarr (Gozo), Cirkewwa, Ta’Qali Sports & Convention Complex, Mosta Technopark, Mater Dei Hospital, University of Malta, Sa Maison, Valletta/Triton Bus Station, Grand Harbour, Marsa and Malta International Airport.
This cross-country line would become the backbone of Malta’s public transport system, with local buses taking passengers between the Metro and their final destinations. Coordinated scheduling and through ticketing would ensure efficiency and economy.
The distance from Victoria Bus Station to Malta Freeport is approximately 35 kilometres, which is roughly the same as Jubilee Line’s 22 miles on the London Underground. This Metro line is served by nine 7-car train sets, which operate between 24 & 30 trains per hour. Of course, the rolling stock and scheduling would have to be designed to suit the unique functional requirements of the Malta Gozo Metro.
A small-bore tunnelling machine could easily penetrate the relatively soft limestone of the local substrata, creating two parallel tunnels for the Metro rail lines. On either side of the Gozo Channel the rail lines could be placed in underground tunnels or in open trenches, either way avoiding grade crossings with surface road traffic. There would be no traffic jams and no accidents. Safety and efficiency would be guaranteed.
The existing Gozo Channel Ferries would continue to carry vehicles of all kinds between Malta and Gozo. They could possibly increase commercial service for trucks, heavy equipment and dangerous goods to further reduce the congestion on the highway infrastructure. This service could be extended to Grand Harbour and the Container Port, and possibly to Sicily, Lampedusa, Linosa, Pantelleria, Sousse and Tunis / La Goulette.
If we accept that the problem is to transport people rather than vehicles, we can free our thinking from the assumption that a highway (either over or under the Gozo Channel) is the only possible solution. Malta and Gozo are already overrun by cars and trucks; it is time to be more creative in our thinking on public transport.”
George Bruce Levine,
Sketch copyright George Bruce Levine