x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

National railway construction to begin in June

Construction of the first stage of the national railway will begin in Al Gharbia, with the first nail to be hammered in Mirfa.

ABU DHABI //Construction on the first part of the national railway will begin in June in Al Gharbia and the first nail will be hammered in Mirfa.

Last month the company changed its name from Union Railway to Etihad Rail and unveiled a new logo. A falcon’s head in the shape of a locomotive decked in the colours of the UAE flag was designed to evoke the firm’s move from the planning stages to implementation.

“We are moving at an amazingly fast pace,” said Richard Bowker, the chief executive of Etihad Rail. “Railways don’t normally get built at this pace.”

The company’s Dh40 billion rail project will be 1,200km in length and built in three phases across all seven emirates, with completion expected in 2017. Talks of an additional 300km of fast-speed commuter passenger train tracks on the coast between Abu Dhabi and Dubai have been put on hold.

“It is not a never, just not now,” Mr Bowker said. “We want to focus on the main freight and passenger line that will span the entire UAE and connect to the GCC regional network.

“The project for the fast-speed trains between Abu Dhabi and Dubai involves many agencies and parties, and so is a bit more complicated ... We want to focus on delivering on time.”

Freight trains are expected to travel at 120kph, and passenger versions at 200kph, with plans to make train stations and access to the railway as “convenient as possible”.

Mr Bowker wanted to clarify that “what we are building is not a commuter train, that is not its primary function”.

“The core network is more inland, and so it would probably take more time than a car,” he said, referring specifically to commuters between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The first phase of the railway is a 270km freight stretch, dubbed the Ruwais Habshan Shah line, linking Shah’s sour gas field in the desert to Ruwais on the coast to transport granulated sulphur for export. The full line, which will also go through major towns such as Mirfa, Liwa and Madinat Zayed, should be up and running in 2014.

“Once the tracks are there, it is 90 per cent of the game,” said Shadi Malak, the executive director of the commercial department at the railway. “There is nothing stopping us from introducing passenger trains soon after the freight ones.”

While the officials did not want to specify an exact date, they said there “could be” passenger trains as early as the end of 2013 in Al Gharbia.

“Those people living in the rural areas outside the main cities are the ones who will benefit the most from the railway both directly through a passenger line and indirectly through the reduction of lorries on their road,” Mr Malak said.

One train can handle an estimated freight load of 300 lorries. However, officials said it was unrealistic to assume that trains would “completely” remove lorries from the roads.

“There will always be lorries but you will see an improvement in the traffic, and hopefully in the lorry industry itself, as there will be competition from the trains,” Mr Malak said.

That line will gradually be extended to the rest of Abu Dhabi, then onto Dubai and the Northern Emirates. It will link up all the major ports, airports and manufacturing centres.

The UAE railway will be driven by diesel engines, in line with the format agreed upon by the GCC railway, but built in such a way to allow for electrification in the future.

There are three railway project contracts open for bidders, including one that covers the infrastructure and building of the railway.

The railway company is also accepting tenders for freight and passenger trains. The overall plan is for local companies, which have expertise in their own terrain, to work with international firms so they can benefit from their railway-specific expertise.

Abu Dhabi’s government owns 70 per cent of the company and the federal government owns the rest.

Mr Malak believes people will gravitate to the new system when it is up and running.

“Because the Emirati culture and Arab culture in general is very communal and they like to travel with their families and friends, I believe the train will give them that social and comfortable mode of transport they have long been waiting for,” Mr Malak said.

“Even if takes a bit longer than a car, they will take the train as it will be a place where they can communicate and socialise with others.”

rghazal@thenational.ae