Having a strong railway network between emirates and other countries will undoubtedly have economic benefits.
Railway project will transform region
A year ago, the long-term virtues of the UAE's Union Railway rail network were being extolled by experts at the Gulf Traffic conference in Dubai.
"Around a network, a huge development takes place with industrial activity and also cities growing when they are connected," said Hans Erik Bruins, the managing partner of the Dutch infrastructure development firm RnR Group. "They will lag behind if they are not connected."
Today, as we report that the first concrete steps to build that railway will be taken early next year, the $30 billion (Dh110 billion) nationwide network is no longer just a vision. With the first link due to be operational in 2013, change is on the horizon, if not right around the corner.
The main thrust of the project, emanating out of Al Gharbia, initially was driven by industrial and freight considerations. But just as importantly, a passenger line will bring residents in more remote areas of Abu Dhabi closer to the capital.
In the long run, rail connections between all of the emirates should also ease the flow of people and goods across the country. As the network is expanded, it should knit the GCC closer together as well.
Shipping expenses will fall, which in turn should have a knock-on effect on some commodity prices, particularly items like fresh produce. Crucially, with fewer cars and heavy vehicles clogging the roads, the environmental benefits will be significant thanks to an anticipated decrease in the country's carbon footprint.
While the promise is obvious, certain issues need to be addressed. The project is years away from completion and traffic problems need to be managed in the meantime. Also, the Middle East does not have a culture of rail travel and many will still be reluctant to leave their cars in the driveways for the railway carriages. Family and women-only sections will be needed to encourage this change.
The GCC may have a long way to go before it becomes an integrated region like the European Union. But anyone who has travelled there knows how the rail network has stitched the continent together, adding to its economic vibrancy.
Having a strong railway network between emirates and other countries will undoubtedly have economic benefits. Hopefully, it will also lay the groundwork for becoming closer neighbours as well.