Take a look at all the pulp sales promoting the idea of a metro in Malta. There are exhibitions, websites, videos, and graphics that probably cost what it would cost to buy Thomas the Tank Engine and pay the Fat Controller for a year. What exactly is this campaign achieving?
I don’t think we need much selling on the idea that Malta needs an improved transport infrastructure. Somehow, for whatever reason, we all wish we could wake up one morning and find the country has a mature mass transit infrastructure. In some cases, I should imagine, the desire comes from the wish to use the infrastructure for one’s own transport needs. I suspect that in most cases, people wish there had been mass transit so that other people could use it and free up the roads for our cars to bustle in.
I don’t think the government, then, is trying to convince us this would be a good idea. When they told us we needed to wear a mask or take a vaccine, they needed to convince us to do something many of us would not be intuitively inclined to be happy with. That’s the job of the government: to tell us not to break the law, to pay our taxes, to conform to standards and strictures that are imposed on us. It’s not the government’s job to tell us we must eat cake at a wedding party, or have sex with people we like. Things we like to do, we can do without instruction.
Malta Today asked the right question. It’s fine for the government to tell us it would be nice to have a metro, but can we afford it? The Finance Minister, Clyde Caruana, has flatly admitted that he hasn’t looked into the matter at all yet. He first wants to know if the public agrees with a metro before checking if we can pay for it. That’s nice.
I’ll ask my children if they’d be happy if I got a 60-foot yacht for our family trips next year. I need to check if they’re worried about sea sickness before checking if we can afford to buy one.
A government that admits not checking the price tag of such a massive initiative before asking the public if they want it, is openly admitting they’re not serious about their proposal. They just want to give us something to talk about before the election.
If their costs are right – and in spite of all the fluff they put in their exhibitions and websites , details are extremely slim – a cost of €6 billion over 20 years is high for us but not entirely impossible.
There are complex calculations that will need to be made (clearly they haven’t been made yet) but let’s keep it simple. Let’s say the €6 billion can be spread evenly over the 20 years costing us €300 million a year in capital expenditure.
That’s about double the current yearly capital budget of the roads and infrastructure department. Presumably we’ll need to continue working on roads and bridges (though hopefully at a reduced rate), so that budget would need to be about trebled.
Since its infrastructure that could improve our carbon performance and the sustainability of our economy, we could tap into international loans to cover the difference and repay those loans at a manageable pace.
Financially, building it, looks doable.
It’s running it when it’s done that is the question that the government openly admits never having looked at yet.
There’s a big strategic choice that needs to be made. Let’s oversimplify this and reduce the choice to a dichotomy, call it the British model or the French model.
In principle, the British model expects the cost of running a train to be paid by the train’s passengers. A train service is viable if there are enough passengers paying enough money in fares to cover the costs of running the operation and leaving some profit. The revenue should, in principle, also cover the cost of maintaining the infrastructure in a good state of repair. That usually means that passengers pay fares to the train company. The train company buys the cars and pays for their maintenance and pays rent to the company that owns the rails and the stations so there’s enough money to keep everything in place.
There’s scope for some subsidy there. The government pays so that, say, the elderly, or students, or children, or people with mobility difficulties, can travel for free or for reduced fares. Or the government can pay to keep the service going through the night, or reach thinly populated areas.
But, under the model we’re calling British, the bulk of the money is paid by the users. Compare it with the way electricity is billed in Malta. Most of the money comes from users who pay bills for consumption, but the government fills some gaps.
Then there’s the French model, or the model we’re labelling as French. Users pay fares but the revenue from tickets pays for a small fraction of the costs, typically only for about a quarter of the operational bill. The other three-quarters are paid for by the government partly because transport is an essential public service that can’t be limited by affordability (like your local hospital) and partly because transport is part of the urban vision and policy of the country.
To do this, this model typically raises direct taxation not unlike your national insurance contributions pay for your pension. You don’t get your NI payments back if you die before you retire and you don’t get your transport taxes back if you still decide to use your car. In these situations, employees working in offices or workplaces are charged a tax to subsidise public transportation whether the tax-payer chooses to use public or private transportation. It’s like your taxes pay for everybody’s free healthcare even if you decide to pay extra and use a private hospital.
This approach does not merely address the question of whether a passenger can afford the cost of public transportation. It also targets the question of whether a city can afford to provide it. If the principle is that we can only have the transportation facilities the market can afford to sustain our hurdles are far higher than paying the €6 billion entry fee. The test of affordability will be having enough people, for enough hours of the day, for enough days in the year, able to pay enough money, to pay and board the train rather than stay home or use their cars.
As Clyde Caruana openly admits no one has yet worked out if we have enough people, for enough hours of the day, for enough days in the year, able to pay enough money, to pay and board the train rather than stay home or use their cars. My bet is there aren’t. Because if there are enough people for this and the local market can sustain such an operation, someone would have built the bloody thing already and would be making money from it.
Remember all the presentations by Anġlu Xuereb (and others since) with all the flashy colours showing how we could and should have a metro? Well, we have sky-scrapers, and we have factories, and we have restaurants, and we have enough people willing to build them and run them because we have enough people to pay the rent or the price of using the services provided in them. But we don’t have a metro yet because anyone’s blind estimate is that we can’t possibly afford it.
What remains to be worked out – quite a detail, don’t you think? – is how short we are of potential bums on imaginary seats to make this viable. Because every day that shortfall will need to be paid by tax-payers.
I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. I would say that in terms of scale a decision to provide a publicly-subsidised mass transport infrastructure using rail would be about equivalent in scope as earlier decisions in other decades to provide free education for everyone, free healthcare, and guaranteed pensions for the elderly and infirm.
I consider our decision to provide free education, healthcare, and social security as indicators of our civilisation. We provide free healthcare and pay for it by paying the healthy as well as the infirm because we think that is what we should be doing as a community, that the health of individuals is important for the health of the city we live in. While we’re in the mood for over-simplifying dichotomies let’s call ours the European model in contrast with the American.
The decision to upgrade transport to the same status is massive, important, potentially socially revolutionary, environmentally consequential, and very, very expensive. I would reserve judgement until I see the figures, but in principle this is something I would want to support.
But none of this is about the metro logo and the flashy artwork or the happy notion that if it ever takes your fancy or your car is at the mechanic for its yearly service, there’s an option you occasionally resort to of using the metro. That is what the government is presenting here and that is not what this is about at all. It would be like trying to persuade us we should millions every day for free healthcare by telling us the logo of the hospital will look nice.
If this had been a serious policy debate, we would be considering a decision to use the tool of tax to punish people for using unsustainable modes of transport and subsidise their consequential decision to travel in groups instead. If you are forced to use it, the metro is bad news. People complain bus stops are too far apart. Train stations are further. People complain buses don’t reach everywhere. Trains reach less. People complain they need to switch buses to travel from point to point. That will be truer with trains. People complain buses are crowded with people they don’t want to talk to. So are trains. People complain buses work on a schedule which may not be when they need to travel. So do trains.
The only thing worse than not building the metro and remaining stuck in our traffic jams, is building the metro, paying for it, and still remaining stuck in our traffic jams. We’ll be just as stuck but much poorer.
The fact of the matter is the government does not want to have this discussion, which is the only real discussion to be had. Consider, to begin with, the decision to propose a metro instead of the considerably more affordable and quicker to implement option of building a tram network or even dedicated bus routes.
The government’s estimates seem to suggest a running rate of €166 million per running kilometre of underground rail (€6 billion divided by their planned 36 kilometre of service). This is comparable to costs in similar project. In today’s money the Jubilee line extension in London in the 1990s cost around €285 million per kilometre. But that was considerably more expensive than projects in Copenhagen, Madrid, Toulouse and others.
Now compare the cost per kilometre of an underground system with the typical cost of building tramways (I am using the recent tramway project in Melbourne as an indicator) of about €5 million per running kilometre. The difference is a factor of 30 and the intractable problem of what to do with all the inert waste is obviated by the choice of a surface system.
Understand that although the capital cost can be, by policy choice, taken off the ticket burden, tax-payers would still need to pay for it whether directly or in the repayment of loans to fund it. And in the operational phase whether from tickets sold on the tram/train or from a government subvention the cost of maintenance will need to be paid for permanently. It is fair to expect the cost of maintaining a metro to be as many times as the cost of maintaining tramways as the relative difference in the cost of their making.
Why has the government dismissed the tramway network solution? Quite simply because much like buses, if trams are sharing the roads with cars they’ll be stuck in the same traffic jams we have today. The tram would only be practically useful if it is separated from cars whether by dedicating roads to trams at the exclusion of cars, or by reducing cars altogether.
Right now, just before an election, the government does not want you think it is capable of imagining asking you not to use some roads you can currently use because they want to dedicate them to a tram, or, God forbid, to ask you to not use your car altogether and use the tram instead.
Flashy images of a metro do not a vision of our future island city make. This is like deciding to marry someone on the back of flashy brochures for wedding cakes. The vision a government or political party should be elaborating right now should be of a sustainable, dense, clean, comfortable, and efficient city life with far less use of private cars and a radical, fundamental shift of the behaviour of the population to moving together in groups on a schedule rather than when the mood takes them.
That’s bad news. It shouldn’t be, but it is. It’s a change to a habit we are deeply addicted to and that the government panders to. Street parking remains unfeasibly free. Road congestion is not taxed or charged. Roads are widened, junctions made into elaborate, space-wasting behemoths and worshipped in public rituals that someone from a thousand years ago would have thought appropriate for the consecration of a cathedral.
The same government that has, by its own account, spent around €400 million in knocking down walls and concreting fields to make roads wider everywhere, cannot be the same government that has any stretch of sincerity in intending to tell people that are using those roads every day to stop doing so and walk to the nearest metro station instead. The two approaches are too fundamentally contradictory and inconsistent to belong to the same person or government or party.
The government is not selling us cake though it wants us to think it is. The government is selling us a marriage by presenting us with a picture of a cake. No wonder Clyde Caruana can’t be arsed to work out how much alimony is going to cost.