x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Light at end of tunnel for Dubai's tram network

Announced in the heady days of 2008, the Al Sufouh Tram project was a casualty of the downturn and the project gathered dust for two years. But improving fortunes of the emirate mean it is now back on track.

Workers lay tracks and build a station near Dubai Media City for the project. The trams are being manufactured in France.
Workers lay tracks and build a station near Dubai Media City for the project. The trams are being manufactured in France.

Announced in the heady days of 2008, the Al Sufouh Tram project was a casualty of the downturn and the project gathered dust for two years. But the ambitious public transit system has rebounded and the first trams will start rolling next year.

The Al Sufouh Tram project has mirrored the roller coaster fortunes of Dubai in recent years.

Announced about five years ago, the public transit system was to link some of the city’s fastest growing and most dynamic communities.

That was 2008, the year that saw the opening of Atlantis, The Palm, with a firework display that reportedly could be seen from Space, but ended with pyrotechnics of a very different kind, as the world found itself in the grip of global recession.

Among the victims of the economic downturn was the Al Sufouh Tram. For about two years, the project gathered dust and construction halted due to financing difficulties.

But now the tram is on the move again. Construction is moving at a pace, with work on the first stations well under way along Dubai Marina and with the delivery of the first vehicles coming in December.

Completion of the first stage, originally scheduled for April 2011, is now set for the autumn of next year, with a budget estimated at Dh3.18 billion. Phase One will see the tram link Dubai Marina to the Mall of the Emirates, a 10.7 kilometre stretch of track that will connect directly to the city’s growing Metro system as well as Dubai Internet City.

Later stages will run past Dubai Media City to the Madinat Jumeirah and the Burj Al Arab hotel, while linking directly to the monorail that runs down the central stalk of the Palm Jumeirah.

With Dubai’s economy rebounding, the case for the tram is still as strong as ever. Dubai Marina and Jumeirah Lakes Towers are home to tens of thousands of workers, with the tram’s capacity adding an extra 200,000 seats a day on the public transport system.

Most visibly, the elevated section along Sheikh Zayed Road is in an advanced state of construction, with the track-bed snaking past the Marina Mall, and framework for several stations taking shape. On several sections, the track has already been laid.

Thousands of miles away, the trams themselves are being made in the workshops of the French multinational corporation, Alstom. In March, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) announced that tests were being run at an experimental track in France, with delivery of the first vehicle set for December 11. In a progress report, Mattar Al Tayer, the Chairman of the RTA, revealed that the overall project was now more than 50 per cent completed, with the most advanced work, the tram depot, now past 90 per cent.

For the opening stage, eight trams, each will be in service, capable of carrying 3,500 passengers an hour. Individual trams will be 44 metres long, carrying up to 300 people and with a first-class carriage – with leather seats – as well as one dedicated to women and children.

Unlike conventional trams elsewhere, Al Sufouh will use not overhead cables, but a version of third rail power, but with the electricity buried in a conduit under the tracks, making it safe to walk over. Passengers will board at air-conditioned stations through sliding glass platform doors to protect them from the heat of a the Arabian Gulf summers – with the climate and dust an additional challenge for a transport system more commonly seen in European cities.

In the second phase of opening, the number of trams will rise to 17 and finally 25, giving a capacity of 5,200 passengers an hour in each direction.

With the projected opening now just 18 months away, the residents of Dubai Marina can look forward to the end of five years of disruption and construction – and finally speed towards their destination.

jlangton@thenational.ae