x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Gulf gets on fast track to easier travel

Travel from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain may one day be as simple as a two-hour ride, on a new rail network.

A preview of a train at Jebel Ali Industrial area earlier this year.
A preview of a train at Jebel Ali Industrial area earlier this year.

Travel from Abu Dhabi to Bahrain may one day be as simple as a two-hour ride, on a new rail network being proposed for the GCC region. After a late start developing mass transit within the area, Gulf nations are planning an ambitious and far-reaching rail line that could span more than 3,000 kilometres to connect the six nations of the GCC and Yemen. The project could cost US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) to $15bn, and Abu Dhabi, with an emphasis on mass transit written into its 25-year urban-planning blueprint, is expected to have the first operational rail network in the region.

About 1,900km of track, including passing loops, will run from Kuwait south along the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, passing through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and finally terminating in Muscat, Oman. Another 1,200km could be extended to reach the Yemeni border. "It's not only on paper, these are projects that will see the light," said Dr Ramiz al Assar, a senior transport analyst at the World Bank based in Saudi Arabia, who is advising the GCC Secretariat on its railway planning. "There has been serious thinking towards mass transit in the Gulf and broader Middle East region."

The rail project comes at a time of renewed push to meet a deadline for monetary union among GCC nations. The value of rail and metro projects planned in the Gulf over the next decade is estimated to exceed $40bn. In Dubai, for example, two metro lines will open late next year, with another 450km of metro or rail projects rolled out by 2020. However, the project will test the limits of GCC co-operation as it tackles thorny issues such as who will regulate the system, how the costs will be shared, and how to overcome contrasting customs laws and regulations within the region.

Initial findings of a feasibility study were submitted earlier this month and called for a single track with passing loops, rather than dual railways. "The demand does not justify more than single track," said Dr Assar. However, the system could be expanded to include another track, as traffic grows. Construction could begin by 2010, with the first service to open between 2015 and 2018, according to estimates. Abu Dhabi's rail network, linking Abu Dhabi island, the Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone with Dubai and Al Ain, and extending to the borders with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has been called the first phase of the GCC railway project. The capital's existing rail plans are expected to complement and fold into the GCC-wide rail plan, under the supervision of the newly established National Transport Authority (NTA) federal agency. The second phase in the GCC project would be a rail line on top of a new causeway linking Bahrain and Qatar.

Final recommendations for the project were expected within the next six months, Dr Assar said, with contract tenders to follow. GCC transport ministers will take up the issue during a meeting in Jeddah next month, as will regional leaders at a GCC summit in November. A working group - consisting of Canarail of Canada, Systra, the French railway company, and the Khatib and& Alami consultancy of Lebanon - is helping with the rail planning.

These efforts have accelerated in recent months, as regional governments watched the dual headaches of congestion and rising petrol prices threaten to stifle the transportation sector. "Three or four years ago, many governments in the area were watching Dubai take the plunge with its metro system and seeing how it would work," said Darcy Buryniuk, the regional director for rail projects at Hyder Consulting, which provided engineering work on Dubai's underground metro stations. "Now, the view is, the cities here are congested and fuel and inflation are high. This is when rail comes into play."

Carrying freight efficiently and cost effectively is the main motivation for the project. Intra-GCC trade is on the rise and electric rail lines offer a much cheaper alternative than road-based transport as fuel costs remain high. The freight carriages would run on standard gauge track. In the UAE, Nasser Saif al Mansoori, the National Transport Authority's general manager and a member of the UAE railway committee, has said the trains would initially carry containers of dry bulk, cement, sand, rock aggregates and petrochemicals between the Emirates' industrial areas, ports and Abu Dhabi International Airport.

However, it is hoped it will be popular among passengers as well as a way to avoid the growing traffic congestion in the Gulf's metropolitan areas. The train service would run at speeds of 200kph for passengers trains and up to 100kph for freight cars. The two-hour ride between Abu Dhabi and Manama, for example, could provide a viable alternative to air travel, after factoring in time spent at check-in and passing through immigration.

In the meantime, the issue of how the huge expenses will be borne by the GCC member states is still unresolved. Dr Assar said each country would pay an amount according to a formula they agreed to, although this had not yet been discussed. One way would be to divide costs based on the expected traffic volumes each country would generate. "A lot of the cost drivers is where revenue is generated. Port Khalifa, in Abu Dhabi, is planning to generate throughputs of very large tonnage, which will make railway economically viable," Mr Buryniuk said.

Despite its massive reach, the GCC rail project will still be complemented by other rail projects. Saudi Arabia is developing the Saudi Landbridge, a 950km railway line that will link Riyadh and Jeddah at a cost of $5bn. Other multibillion-dollar Saudi projects include the North-South railway, starting at the border with Jordan and running south to Riyadh and the industrial coastal city of Ras al Zour, and a light rail network linking the holy cities.

The Saudi government has taken steps to create a new rail regulator so that the same company does not both regulate and manage the rail system. Such moves highlight a pressing problem in the GCC - a lack of established bodies to shepherd these complex projects. The UAE's NTA, for example, was set up only this year. While this lack of local expertise has provided huge opportunities for foreign firms with railways experience to come in, it has also meant planning has progressed slowly, observers say.

igale@thenational.ae