Malta Railway

Malta Railway Museum

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History of The Malta Railway by N Azzopardi.


Mr. Nicholas Azzopardi in the Railway Museum


This small museum can be found at No. 37, St. Dominic Street in the village core, a few metres away from the parish church. This place was built in the nineteen century and consists of a large hall with its ceiling resting on five large arches. Some people say that once it was a bakery but from within, there is nothing to indicate that it was used as such. No one knows exactly what was its use up to 1920. Between 1920 and 1935 this place was used as a playhouse. In fact on the left hand side of the entrance, part of the hall is divided by a larger arch to house the stage. On the right hand side, in addition to the seating accommodation, there is also a small balcony to house part of the audience. Shows were held regularly by a dramatic company from Attard. Among the actors of this company, there were Francis Pace and Oreste Cumbo, both from Attard. The latter, on several occasions used to play the role of a woman, because in those days, women in Malta did not take part in such plays. (1)

During the second world war, that is between 1939 and 1946 this place was used as a store for all kinds of timber. After the war, it was a carpentry shop. In 1964, Mr Vincent Buttigieg took over the ownership of this place. Here he built a large mechanical crib and also modelled eleven miniatures of old Maltese trades. In 1995 the place passed in the hands of Mr Nicholas Azzopardi, who took great care of all these works left by Mr Buttigieg after his death. In 1997 some structural works took place on the left hand side of the building. The part where originally was the stage of the playhouse was divided in two levels. The lower part was converted into a garage and the upper part houses the permanent exhibition on the Malta Railway which Mr Azzopardi modelled between 1981 and 1985.

Thus, who visits this small museum can admire the crib and miniatures of old Maltese trades on the ground floor while on the first floor, there is the Malta Railway Exhibition.

The Museum is now run by Nicholas Azzopardi who was born at Zebbug on the 18th October 1930 and is married to Helen Buttigieg daughter of Vincent Buttigieg.

THE MALTA RAILWAY - Model in ‘N’ Gauge.

The hobby of model trains started with a train set which I bought on the 17th August 1962. This set consisted of an 0-4-0 engine and two passenger coaches. Since we have no trains on the island, I had to read magazines and other literature on the subject to form an idea how to construct and run a model train. From these magazines and a little experience of overseas travel, I began to plan and build my small layouts.

A couple of years later, the idea that some day I try to model the Malta Railway came to my mind. The Malta Railway was inaugurated on the 28th February 1883 as a private company. The Line started from Valletta to the old capital city of Mdina - a length of about 7 miles. There were six stations along the route which were Valletta - Hamrun - Birkirkara - Attard - Rabat and Mtarfa. After seven years, the company went bankrupt and the Line closed down in 1890. The Government took over and after relaying a new set of rails - 45 lbs per yard - and replacing wooden bridges with stone ones, the Line, under government ownership, reopened in February 1892. The Malta Railway - one metre gauge - was always a passenger train and made her last journey on the 31st March 1931. Unfortunately, from a total of 10 engines and about 34 passenger coaches, nothing is left on the island to remind you of the existence of the railway. The only exception is a 3rd class coach which up to 1984 was used as a dressing room in a private tennis-court. In 1984, the owner gave it to the government and after being restored, was placed at the Birkirkara Railway Station on the 31st March 1987.

I started with my plans to model the Malta Railway in 1969 when I began to take photographs of what was still standing such as station buildings, bridges, embankments etc. I tried to acquire old photos depicting the Line and other useful information. In the beginning of 1970, a book entitled “The Malta Railway” written by Capt.B. Rigby was published. I bought this book and read it several times. The book contained useful information that I could utilize for my project. I divided the Line in eight sections, that is:

Valletta Station 375 feet(approx.) 4 feet in HO Gauge.
Princess Melita Road cross-over 600 feet 7 feet in HO Gauge 
Hamrun Station 450 feet 5 feet in HO Gauge
Birkirkara Station 750 feet 9 feet in HO Gauge
Attard Station 250 feet 3 feet in HO Gauge 
S.Salvatore Station  300 feet 3.5 ft. in HO Gauge
Notabile (Rabat) St. 300 feet 3.5 ft. in HO Gauge
Museum(Mtarfa) St 500 feet 6 feet in HO Gauge

By the end of June 1970, I designed in detail all the plans of the sections concerned in the HO gauge, that is, scale 1:87 or 4mm to the foot. The information on the Valletta, Birkirkara and Attard Stations could be found in the above mentioned book and that on the cross-over in Princess Melita Road and part of the Hamrun Station from old site plans. I went on the spot and took measurements of what was still standing for the remaining stations of S. Salvatore, Notabile and Museum. For example, the Notabile Station was below Saqqajja Hill. The ticket booth was at the top of the road and the station building was at the lower end. Between them there were 12 trees about 15 feet apart from each other. From these measurements I could find almost the exact length of the platform below.

I began my project by modelling the Attard Station which was the smallest of them all. This model was ready by October 1970. The next section to be taken in hand was the San Salvatore Station. Although this was not one of the main stations, it was an important part of the Line which catered for the employees and visitors of a nearby hospital. Of particular interest one may mention the slanting arch forming part of the Rabat road over the Line. It was a sort of a small tunnel through which the train emerged from the station on its last leg towards Rabat. This part was ready by the end of April1971. Two years later I finished the Notabile (Rabat) Station. This station was actually constructed in a cutting and the station platform was some 25 feet below street level. With the help of photos, measurements taken on the spot and a little imagination, I think this model was very near to the original one.

After finishing these three models, the space problem became a headache for me and for a number of years, this project was shelved. But I never lost hope of realising my dream. By the end of 1981, I decided to build my models in the “N” gauge, that is, scale l:148 or 2mm to the foot. This small scale cleared the main problem - the space problem. I had to begin from scratch and redesign everything in this small scale. In the meantime I acquired more information and old photos. This time I was faced with another problem. The track sections and rolling stock were not available on the local market. I had to import them from the United Kingdom.

This time I was determined to begin and finish this project which took me about three years to complete. In fact it was ready by October 1985. As I said before, the project consisted of eight sections linked together to make a working model. Between each section there is a space of a few centimetres for scenery purposes thus bringing the whole model to just over 8 metres in lenght.

Section 1  The Valletta terminus with the station building and offices in Ordinance Street. The railway track and platforms were in the ditch below Porta Reale, known to-day as City Gate.
Section 2 Princess Melita Road cross-over. The Line emerges from the tunnel under Floriana bastions crossing over Princess Melita Road and continues to the site of Ta’ Braxia Cemetery.
Section 3 Hamrun Central Station as it was known during the railway days. There are the station building, offices, workshops and engine shed. The maintenance of the rolling stock was done in these workshops.
Section 4 Birkirkara Station. The building was one-storey and not two as it is to-day. In fact all station buildings were one-storey. At this station there was also a water pump used by locomotives.
Section 5 Attard Station with cross-over in B’Kara Road. This station was the only one having a one track arrangement though it was wide enough to take two.
Section 6 San Salvatore Station was near the Mount Carmel Hospital and catered for the visitors and staff of this hospital.
Section 7 Notabile Station which was situated below Saqqajja Hill was the other end terminus up to 1900.
Section 8 Museum Station was opened in June 1900 and served as the other end terminus up to its closure in 1931. It is situated below Mdina bastions and took its name from the nearby Roman Museum known as the Roman Villa.

Here I wish to point out that the materials used in my models are mainly plywood, jablo, cardboard and cork. Trees are made from artificial grass commonly used here in building cribs at Christmas time.

Besides the models shown in this exhibitioin, there are quite a good number of old photographs and documents together with other exhibits connected with the railway including:
Route map - circa 1900 - showing the 5 stations and the 14 Guard huts at level crossings. The Museum Station was not yet opened.
An original time-table dated 7th March 1913.
A photocopy of the last time-table dated January 1931.
Parts of the three different
types of rails used between 1883 and 1931.
The upper part of one of the iron columns supporting the canopy at the Attard Station.

The first Malta Railway Exhibition was held during the Christmas Season of 1985 at my home. I must admit that it was a success more than I was expecting. It was held again in 1987 at the same place and during the same season. In July 1989 the exhibition moved for a forthnight to the Paceville Community Centre in St. Julian sea-side resort.

In October 1998, the Malta Railway Exhibition moved to a permanent place at 37, Saint Dominic Street, Attard - Malta. It can be viewed at request by both locals and foreigners by contacting me on Tel.No.2143 5235.

17th May 2003 Nicholas Azzopardi.


Vincent Buttigieg was born at Santa Venera on the 23rd March 1910. On the 31st January 1935, he was married to Rosanna Debono from Attard. He had five children and lived in Main Street, Attard up to his death on the 8th May 1995.

When he took possession of No.37, St Dominic Street, he built a large mechanical crib which is still in place and is visited by several people during the Christmas season. The mechanical parts of it with a large number of wheels, sprockets and chains of the meccano type are all driven by one motor.

I think that the masterpiece of Mr Buttigieg works, is a set of twelve miniatures of old Maltese trades which he modelled between 1966 and 1993. Since he was a carpenter by trade, the first miniature of an old Maltese carpenter's shop was made during the late 1930’s when he was still in his twenties. In 1966, he made another model of a carpenter's shop, this time a more modern one which includes five different machines. Between 1970 and 1975 he modelled another three trades. The first one was that of a weaving loom with tools connected with this trade. Then he made a model of cart making. In this miniature one can see the working of three trades under one roof There is the carpenter who works the wooden structure of the cart. Then there is the manual wood-turner doing the hub of the wheels and finally the blacksmith who works the iron rings to hold the wheels in place. Another model is that of a blacksmith making and fixing horseshoes.

In 1980, Mr Buttigieg made a model of a typical Maltese farm. This is the largest one of the whole set. In fact the other miniatures have an average size of 60cm x 30cm while this one measures 115cm x 42cm. Here one can see several different tools used by farmers and animals reared in these farms such as rabbits, hens, ducks, etc. Between 1982 and 1984 he built another three models. These were the potter, wine pressing and that of barrel making. In the potter's shop, two workers are doing their job and on the left of the model, there is the oven for the finishing of the product. On each side there are shelves with ready made pottery for sale. Years ago, wine pressing was done manually - there were no machines yet. One may observe that the workers are holding on to ropes to avoid slipping. In the barrel maker's shop, one may see the different types of barrels made. These were normally made to store wine in them.

During 1986, he began and finished the model of a bakery. Besides the oven built of Maltese stone, there are several employees doing different types of work connected with the production of bread. The model of the cane worker was done in 1990 while that of the sprinkler was made in 1993. This small model, the last one in the series, consisted of a large wooden barrel loaded on a cart and driven by a horse or an ass. It was used to sprinkle water on the surface of the roads especially during the summer months.