An Italian rail company has built a driverless metro system with tinted windows in Saudi Arabia to help comply with rules in the kingdom concerning women and driving.
No men are allowed at the Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University for Women in Riyadh, while the country does not permit women to drive.
As a result, university administrators elected to use driverless metro trains on the 11.5km line that services the establishment. The vehicles are built by AnsaldoBreda and AnsaldoSTS, two units of the Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica.
"It seemed like a perfect solution," said Issam Alain Chehimi, the UAE and GCC resident manager of AnsaldoSTS. "There was a strong requirement for a driverless system due to the fact that women do not drive and men are not allowed at the university."
The new line is expected to open within days and will be the second metro system operating in the Middle East after Dubai Metro, Ansaldo officials said. It is one of a growing number of fully automated metro systems to be implemented worldwide.
The university trains, which are styled with calligraphy designs, also come with darkly tinted windows to preserve energy "and to comply with tradition and ensure privacy", Mr Chehimi said.
The €218 million (Dh1.15 billion) rail project is just one of a number in the Middle East, considered one of the highest growth regions for rail transport in the world. Companies from around the world are in Dubai this week to showcase products at the global congress of the International Association of Public Transport, which ends tomorrow.
The Middle East and North Africa (Mena) rail market is estimated to be worth US$8.8bn (Dh32.32bn) by 2015, including rolling stock, rail services and operations, according to a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study undertaken by the European rail industry.
International firms are submitting offers to build two light rail projects in Qatar, an airport passenger transport system and a link for the planned Lusail City residential project. The country's plans to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup is expected to stimulate billions of dollars' worth of additional rail projects.
The GCC states are planning to build a regional rail network linking the six countries by the end of this decade, while in the UAE a nationwide freight network is being planned.
In addition, Abu Dhabi is evaluating tram and metro projects, while Dubai Metro will open its Green Line later this year. This week, Dubai announced it had hired four banks to raise $800m, backed by road-toll receipts in the emirate, to help fund transport projects.
The Mena rail market has grown by 4.1 per cent since 2007, according to the BCG study. "Transportation infrastructure is undergoing a substantial change [in the region]," said Bombardier, the Canadian rail and aerospace firm. "From an automobile and road-transport orientation, the focus is now shifting to public transportation and more sustainable modes of mass transportation available."
Bombardier, which has been hired to implement a 3.6km monorail system for the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, said there were also opportunities in Libya and Algeria. It is unclear, however, how the recent regional unrest, particularly in Libya, will affect the planning and funding for potential projects in those countries.