x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

New vistas possible for joint rail network

The UAE is making strides towards building a national railway system for freight transport. Passenger rail service, however, appears stuck in the station.

By 2013, freight should be rumbling through the expanses of the Western Region, delivering goods faster - and more cheaply - than is possible by road. That railway link, long in the planning process, now seems much closer to realisation. There is no reason, however, to stop planning there.

As The National reported yesterday, the first phase of the UAE's national railway project finally has a due date. When it arrives, commerce in the UAE will be significantly transformed. Trains, on average, remove an estimated 50 lorries from highways for every 1,000 tonnes of cargo sent, meaning less fuel and less congestion on already congested roads.

But why stop with freight? Passenger services would also take cars off the roads, not to mention reduce stress during long commutes. Not long ago high-speed rail links - between Abu Dhabi, Dubai and beyond - seemed like only a matter of time. Now they appear to be stalled in the station.

Instead, individual emirates have gone ahead with rail plans independently. Dubai's Metro has reinvigorated public transport within the city. Abu Dhabi is planning a light rail network of its own, but at this stage there are no plans to link the two.

The UAE is a car-dependent culture, but rail networks in Europe and Asia have shown that commuters and travellers will choose the convenience of leaving their cars behind if given a choice. High-speed rail could knit together not only Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but the northern emirates as well, to the benefit of the federation as a whole.

Unified rail networks are a natural next step, particularly as projects get underway across the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has awarded $4.5 billion (Dh16.5 billion) in new deals for its own network, while Qatar is steaming ahead with a $35 billion plan to build a system before the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

Like the in UAE, much of the focus is on moving goods. But Ramiz Al Assar, a senior transport specialist at the World Bank and an adviser to the GCC, says a regional passenger railway network is being considered. To get there, national projects will have to do a better job coordinating with neighbours on compatible tracks and infrastructure.

The day is not too far off when there will be a direct rail link from Abu Dhabi to Riyadh. It would be a shame if the Abu Dhabi to Ras Al Khaimah leg lagged behind.