Does road-widening work? Architect Konrad Xuereb and his vision for a mass transport system

Rebecca Anastasi - 4th August 2019

With bumper-to-bumper traffic flaring tempers, and the contentious proposals for a Gozo car tunnel swiftly approved in Parliament, calls for a revolution in the way we see transport have recently made the headlines.

Considering the ever-growing stock of cars on the Maltese islands, the road widening initiatives undertaken by government and a proposed tunnel linking Malta with Gozo, architect Konrad Xuereb has challenged state policies by proposing a mass transport system that is not reliant on private vehicle use.

In reaction to these challenges, in an opinion piece published in The Times of Malta on 29th July 2018 – and followed up with a series of similar articles over the past 11 months – structural engineer and architect Dr Konrad Xuereb suggested it may be time for Malta to finally embrace a mass transit system designed to carry people efficiently: a metro.

“Just widening and creating new roads doesn’t work. Traffic just shifts, so you just end up wondering ‘where will it move to next’? And that’s why we came up with this solution,” Dr Xuereb says, as we sit in the Valletta office of his firm, KonceptX. “We’ve done a lot of pro bono work, and a lot of research to get the details just right. Malta needs a mass transit system, and we think the idea of a metro solves it.” Dr Xuereb is, indeed, no stranger to large-scale infrastructural projects, having worked on bridges, underground lines and high-rises in the United Kingdom, UAE and in Scandinavia, throughout his 19 years in the profession.

Konrad Xuereb

Architect Konrad Xuereb

He graduated from the University of Malta, moving to Milan immediately afterwards to complete his Masters in structural engineering. An opportunity to work with a big architectural firm in London spurred him to make another move, this time to the English capital, where he stayed for the next 14 years, working as an associate at Alan Baxter & Associates (ABA), and, later, at the multinational firm Arup for seven years. While in the UK, Dr Xuereb also completed his PhD in futureproofing buildings at UCL, and opened his practice in London, in 2015.

While working for both ABA and Arup, he got invaluable insight in the complex infrastructural project for London’s new underground railway, Crossrail, transformed into the Elizabeth Line, which is set to shuttle commuters from Reading and Heathrow to the west and east of the city. And, locally, his proposal for a Maltese metro system is built upon these years of experience working in the field, across the globe.

He is critical of the Gozo car tunnel and expresses his concerns over the environmental and archaeological risks – stating that the ramps will “ruin the Pwales valley” – and safety, should disaster strike.

“Another issue with the car tunnel is that this will stretch from Nadur to Manikata. That’s the length of Gozo. Each car poses a safety risk. What happens if a fire starts? I have three young children. Am I going to walk seven or eight kilometres, half the length of Gozo, with the kids? The car tunnel will probably kill off the ferry service. And, if there’s a fire, and the car tunnel closes for some years for repair and there is no ferry, Gozo is cut off,” he affirms. In contrast, the metro, he explains, will be part of a “multi-modal system”, which means that it is complementary to other types of transportation systems, such as the ferry, buses or cycling routes. “And, with a metro you know you’re going to get there in the time you estimated,” he says.

Malta metro

Indeed, to ensure efficiency, KonceptX’s proposed plan maps out a line which loops to capture the largest amount of people, in the busiest areas. “Most people reside, or are based in, the harbour area as well as Mellieha and St Paul’s Bay. So, the first line will start off in the north and head to the centres, including Paceville, St Julian’s, Sliema, Msida (hospital and university) as well as Valletta, coiling to get Paola, Zejtun, Birzebbuga and the airport. That captures half the population on the island and three-quarters of the tourists,” he explains. Moreover, and as has been reported already in the media, a second connection will then link St Paul’s Bay to the airport, also linking with Qormi, the business centre of Mriehel, Birkirkara and Mosta, in a 10km stretch, while the last element of the project consists of an extension to Gozo.

Malta metro

“What we think would be best is to create the metro tunnel closer to Comino (due to shallower waters), create a stop at Xewkija or Mgarr, and then head to Rabat. There is a debate on whether this should stretch to Marsalforn or not, but this is a conceptual route, at this stage.” He underlines that there has been interest from Gozo since the metro solves a fundamental issue for the islanders: how to get to Malta and back quickly and reliably. Car use will nearly half since transport from each “node” – each metro station – to other towns will be available, through a system of bus routes.

The structural engineer says that this nation-wide transport system will cost nearly four billion euro, according to the firm’s calculations, with annual costs of €150 million a year, including maintenance, energy costs and salaries. But, according to their research, on a ticket of €1.75 per person – and taking the population of Malta, plus the 2.5 million tourists the island attracts per year – the annual income should amount to €300 million. “This includes advertising and leasing of retail space in stations.”

This interview initially featured in the June edition of the Commercial Courier.

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Does road-widening work? Architect Konrad Xuereb and his vision for a mass transport system