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A computer image of the 40km road and rail link of bridges which, when complete, will be the world's longest fixed-line marine crossing.
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A computer image of the 40km road and rail link of bridges which, when complete, will be the world's longest fixed-line marine crossing.

Massive bridge project gets go-ahead

The multibillion-dollar Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge, the longest fixed-link marine crossing, will begin construction next spring.

After many years of discussion and false starts, construction of a bridge linking Bahrain and Qatar is set to begin next spring. The multibillion-dollar Qatar-Bahrain causeway will be a 40km road and rail link of bridges and built-up embankments, the longest fixed-link marine crossing in the world. The road journey time between the two Gulf states is set to be cut to less than 30 minutes, compared to five hours at present via Saudi Arabia.

It will mean that Bahrain will finally have road connections on both sides, as for the past 23 years the island nation has been linked to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway. There will be 22km of viaduct bridges, 18km of built-up embankments across islands and estuaries, plus two long-span ship crossings. Construction of temporary labour camps for some of the up to 10,000 people set to build the causeway, also known as the Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge, will begin this autumn, with workers housed in both countries.

Motorists may be charged to use the 120kph motorway, which will have two lanes in each direction. A spokesman for the project said it was likely to have a "significant economic impact" on both countries. Officials hope the bridge's opening will lead to greater co-operation in such areas as education, health care and technology development. Project proposals date back to 2001, and among the more recent reasons for the delays was the decision to redesign the causeway to include a railway line.

This will include freight and high-speed passenger services and will be incorporated into Qatar's national rail system and the wider GCC railway project designed to link Kuwait and Oman. The road link could open from about 2014, while the railway line is likely to take an additional two years to be completed. The cost, to be covered by both countries' governments through the Qatar-Bahrain Causeway Foundation, has not been announced, although earlier estimates without the rail link put the total at about US$3 billion (Dh11bn).

The final specifications are likely to be unveiled in October. One potential environmental concern has been that the bridge would in effect cut off the section of the Gulf south of the two causeways, leading to an increase in salinity. However, officials say the new causeway has been designed to maximise water flow through it to prevent this. "A great deal of work has been done since 2002 to guard against negative environmental impacts," the project spokesman said.

"The intent is to both minimise negative impacts and identify opportunities for environmental enhancements." The two countries differ heavily in size, with Qatar's area of 11,437 sq km more than 17 times that of neighbouring Bahrain, which covers 665 sq km. In population terms there is less of a disparity, as Bahrain with 710,000 residents has close to half as many people as Qatar, which has a population of 1.65 million.

The American construction company KBR will manage the project in association with UK-based Halcrow. Actual construction will be carried out by companies including Vinci from France and Hochtief from Germany. Danish, Qatari and Greek companies are also involved. Bahrain's other causeway has proved increasingly popular with motorists since it opened in November 1986, about five years after construction started.

Up to the end of last year, the 28km King Fahd Causeway had carried 70.78m vehicles. Last year alone, 7.92m vehicles used the bridge, a 10 per cent increase on 2007. During holiday periods, as many as 70,000 people cross each day. However, the increased traffic volumes have also led to congestion, with reports saying the relatively short journey can take two hours. As a result, in March, a five-month project to expand the causeway was started, the first part of a wider project to increase capacity set to continue for five years. Many of the improvements are designed to increase the number of vehicles able to enter the causeway in a given time period.

The King Fahd Causeway has done more than just act as another road link as it has created new classes of commuters. Many people who work in Saudi Arabia can live in Bahrain thanks to the causeway and take advantage of the island nation's greater variety of social outlets and less conservative atmosphere. Universities in Bahrain have also attracted Saudi students, some of whom commute to their home country each day.

Families go for day trips in both directions, with Saudis sometimes travelling for a day to the cinema in Bahrain, while Bahrainis often go on shopping trips to Saudi Arabia to take advantage of lower prices. When the Qatar-Bahrain causeway is completed, it will take the record for the world's longest fixed-link marine crossings from the 35.7km Hangzhou Bay Bridge, which was finished in 2007 and runs between Shanghai and Ningbo in eastern China. dbardsley@thenational.ae

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