Malta Diary The Maltese “ship” that “travelled on land”
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In 1883 the horse, the horse and cart or the horse and carriage (known as the “karozzin” in Maltese which was highly popular with British servicemen for ever more because they felt it to be quite quaint to ride around in a horse-drawn taxi) were the only means of land transport in Malta (that is unless one was carried in a sedan chair – but this was only for the rich and noble and had become extinct by 1883). Automobiles and Penny Farthing bicycles had yet to be introduced.
Then came a dramatic development that at the time must have been the equivalent of experiencing electric lighting for the first time and many, many years later, similar to the introduction of the internet.
The trip from the capital city Valletta to the former capital city Mdina, a distance of almost 13 kilometres as the crow flies, 135 years ago would have taken hours by ‘karozzin’ or horse and cart, compounded by the ins and outs through various towns and villages along the route, virtually doubling the 13 kilometres and even more.
Then … came the steam train and the journey was dramatically slashed to 25 minutes and was the start of a mechanical revolution in Malta. At first the daunting and monstrous appearance and noise of the steam train created concern and confusion but was soon assimilated.
For want of a better description it was popularly dubbed “the ship that travels on land” as this seemed to be the nearest equivalent.
The train left Valletta and stopped at various major localities where stations were also built. The first stop was the short distance to Floriana, a Valletta suburb. The train then proceeded to Hamrun, to Birkirkara and into the countryside and then stopping at Attard before proceeding to Rabat and Mdina.
The service was later extended from Mdina to Mtarfa because of the British Services barracks there and the Mtarfa Military Hospital.
After all the concern had ebbed it became an extremely popular form of travel. A steam engine would chug and pull 34 carriages split between First Class and Second Class – with obvious connotations.
At about the same time, there was a further mechanical revolution with the introduction of the Barrakka Lift in Valletta from the Grand Harbour to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, a tortuous uphill climb if one had to walk it or take a ‘karozzin’.
This still exists today in an obviously updated and enhanced state after it had been stopped for some while with the decline and final departure of British Naval ships.
It was re-introduced when cruise liners began to call at the Grand Harbour.
One other development during that era was the introduction of a tram service. The tram plied from Valletta to the Three Cities of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua as well as running a service from Valletta to Birkirkara and Zebbug, a virtually circular route. This however, proved less popular than the fast steam engine.
The rail system lasted from 1883 to 1931 and was then wounded up as motor vehicles and motorcycles became increasingly imported together with a public transport bus service that served all areas in Malta.
This in itself created a new revolution by escalating mobility throughout the islands. Buses were introduced when large swathes of the population were still mostly illiterate and could not read numbers or destinations. Different routes were given different colour codes to enable immediate distinction.
During the 1970s the colour coding was deemed humiliating and a disturbing relic of the days of general ignorance and illiteracy and was done away with. However, the move did not meet with general approval in removing the old and quaint system which also proved highly popular with tourists.
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