Early next year the first tracks will be laid on the colossal Union Railway project, set to create a 1,500km link across the UAE from Saudia Arabia to Oman. The project will take eight years to complete and pass through each of the nation's seven emirates. Today, The National continues its three-day series examining the impact of the project on the industrial heartland; and tomorrow the lorry-ridden north.
DUBAI // On the ground, Jebel Ali Port is a massive operation.
Serving more than one billion people anually and processing an unimaginable assortment of items - cars, food, furniture - it docks ships from across the world. Every day is a bustle of activity, with majestic yellow cranes lifting and carrying cargo high in the air and walls of containers stacked like Lego blocks along the shore, waiting until the constant parade of lorries can carry them to their next destination.
The Union Railway will forever alter this rhythm.
"There has never been a more exciting time for railways in the region," said Richard Bowker, the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi-based Union Railway. "The era of truly integrated multi-modal logistics is coming to the UAE."
When the Union Railway line connects Jebel Ali Port with the new Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi, and Port Saqr in Ras al Khaimah, it is expected to increase efficiency and reduce the shipping system's impact on the environment.
"It will lead to optimal utilisation of the current capacity, adding to our multi-modal capabilities of road, sea and air. The freight corridor should also bring considerable environmental benefits and reduce heavy vehicular traffic between the emirates," said Mohammed al Muallem, the senior vice president and managing director of ports operator DP World in the UAE.
"We welcome the Union Railway project as an exciting development, helping generate efficiencies for our customers' supply chains," he said.
Khalifa Port is one of the emirate's largest ongoing infrastructure projects, expected to be operational by the end of 2012. It is being developed across a 400sqkm stretch in Taweelah, near the border with Dubai.
Its initial annual capacity has been forecast to hit two million 20ft equivalent units (TEUs) and eight million tonnes of general cargo, but when the entire project is complete in the coming decades it will reach 15 million containers and 35 million tonnes of general cargo.
In comparison, the still-growing Jebel Ali Port handled 11 million TEUs last year.
Mr Bowker said: "Linking Jebel Ali to Khalifa Port is very important, not only for the project but also for the UAE logistics as a whole. The Union Railway will serve two of the most strategically located ports in the Gulf."
The rail network will start at Ghweifat, run around Abu Dhabi, where a junction will take the line to the Al Ain Industrial Zone. The main line is to continue north towards Dubai to Jebel Ali, inland to near Dubailand and on to Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Port Saqr and then across the mountains into Fujairah. The Abu Dhabi freight and passenger line will cover 588km, including Abu Dhabi International Airport, Khalifa Port and Musaffah, while the Shah-Habshan-Ruwais line covers 264km and the Dubai and Northern Emirates freight and passenger line will stretch 363km.
One of the initial challenges to introducing the railway through Jebel Ali had to do with finding space for it, as any free areas had already been designated for future projects.
But port authorities were able to find and allocate land at Jebel Ali and Khalifa to accommodate the railway tracks, while links at Saqr Port and possibly Fujairah Port are still under discussion.
While freight is the priority for now, Union Railway has also drawn up tentative plans for a 311km Gulf Coast high-speed passenger line connecting Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates. Various parties, including the Union Railway, Department of Transport, Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council and the Roads and Transport Authority in Dubai are studying the project.
The Gulf Coast railway could also alleviate much of the congestion on the roads. During peak hours, up to 16,000 passengers travel between the three urban centres of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah in one direction every hour, according to a recent study conducted by Union Railway.
"What is clear is that there is very high potential demand for rail passenger transport," Graeme Overall, a senior manager of business development at Union Railway, said during a conference this month.
Yasmine Ahmed, a 24-year-old from Egypt who works in marketing, said: "I would use the railway as I could do some of my work on the train while it takes me from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and back, but only if there is an affordable and efficient transportation service from the train station to my place of work. I am not going to walk in the heat to work."
According to a recent survey by Regus, a global serviced offices company, 91 per cent of UAE residents use cars for commuting to work every day.
Hamad bin Rashid, a 32-year-old Emirati businessman who regularly battles Dubai to Sharjah traffic, said a Gulf Coast railway would be "heaven".
"Anything is better than driving through the traffic of Sharjah," he said. "Time is money, and if the railway cuts down on travel time, then it is saving us money. And of course, it removes the headache of driving through traffic."
From Ghweifat to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, where a junction will take the line to the Al Ain Industrial Zone.
The main line is to continue north towards Dubai to Jebel Ali, inland to near Dubailand and on to Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Port Saqr and then across the mountains into Fujairah.
The Al Ain line will eventually continue into Oman to Port Sohar on the Indian Ocean before heading down along the coast to Muscat.
The trains are expected to run at speeds of 80kph to 120kph for freight transport and 160kph to 200kph for passenger service.
Some of the Union Railway branches include:
Abu Dhabi freight and passenger liner covering 588km, including Abu Dhabi International Airport, Khalifa Port and Musaffah.
Shah Habshan Ruwais Railway (264 Km) Dubai and northern emirates freight and passenger line (363 Km).
Some of the planned Western Region and Abu Dhabi train stations:
Ghweifat, Ruwais, al Mirfa, Tarif, ADNOC Habshan, Madinat Zayed, Mezaira'a, ADNOC Shah, Abu Dhabi station, Saadiyat Island, Capital City, and Shahama.
The main nodes for freight decided so far:
Ruwais, Shah, Musaffah, Taweelah, Jebel Ali, the Industrial Zone of Al Ain and Port Saqr in RAK.
Nodes are also being planned for Fujairah, Sharjah and Khor Fakkan.