x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Bahrain: take the train or pay the price

Bahrain plans to introduce road tolls once it completes the first phase of an ambitious cross-island rail system.

Bahrain is planning to introduce congestion tolls once it completes the first phase of an ambitious cross-island rail system. The island nation believes asking motorists to pay to use certain roads will cut pollution and accident rates, but officials say they can only introduce tolls once there is a viable public transport alternative to cars. Bahrain already has bus services, but these will be substantially improved in conjunction with the building of several railway lines.

The news comes weeks after the launch of the Dubai Metro and coincides with the building of monorails in other major cities such as Mumbai. Proposals for a rail system and upgraded bus services in Bahrain will tie in with the construction of a GCC-wide rail system, due for completion in 2017. A feasibility study for the first phase of the island railway is due for completion by the end of next year and the country's ministry of works said construction would start soon afterwards.

Planners envisage a complete network of 184km made up of six lines. The 32.7km red line and the 32km brown line will be light rail transit lines, while the 29km blue line will be a monorail. Also planned are a 21km green line tramway and two bus rapid transit lines, purple and orange, which are 36.5km and 33km respectively. Most routes are concentrated in the northern part of the island, where the majority of the population lives and which suffers from the heaviest congestion. However, it is proposed that the system could eventually be extended almost to the southern tip of the island.

Kadhim Latif, the chief for traffic planning and studies in the ministry of works, said the first phase was scheduled to be built by 2014. This will include a 13km stretch of the red line starting at Bahrain International Airport and heading through Al Muharraq and Manama, ending up north of the Bahrain Mall. The first phase will also include an 11km section of the green line running from Juffair and going through the suburbs of Manama before also completing near the mall.

"It's very important," Mr Latif said of the planned rail and bus network. "The traffic congestion here is growing day by day and that's due to the absence of public transport in Bahrain. "Having a light rail, monorail, tramway and bus rapid transit will help us to implement some policies to control the number of vehicles. We cannot now implement the policies unless we have an alternative for the citizens.

"By implementing these, we'll relieve the congestion and help the environment - the fumes and accidents will be reduced." Congestion charges or road tolls were "normal procedures" in other countries, Mr Latif said, citing the example of Dubai's Salik tolls introduced on some major roads and bridges. He said the levies would start once phase one was completed, although the amounts motorists would be charged had not been decided.

"There will be congestion charging within Manama because this is where congestion is concentrated," he said. Bahrain has 400,000 vehicles for a population of about one million, with car ownership having increased by an average of nine per cent annually over the past seven years. In the northern and central parts of the country, there is an average of more than three cars per household. The island also attracts 6.6 million vehicles a year from Saudi Arabia through the King Fahd Causeway, or 18,000 on average per day, and the number of vehicles from visitors is set to increase when the Qatar-Bahrain causeway is opened, in 2014 or 2015.

Completion of the second phase of the rail and bus network is set for 2021, while the whole project is due to be finished by 2030, by which time Bahrain's population is projected to have increased to 1.55 million. As with the Dubai Metro, there are likely to be separate first-class sections and areas reserved for women and children. When the first phase is completed, officials predict there will be 145 million trips by riders per year, increasing to 241 million annually in 2021 and 319 million annually in 2030. The total cost of the project has been estimated by the Bahraini government at 3.6 billion dinars (Dh29.8bn). While the government is expected to partly fund the cost of the project, it is also looking to attract private finance through a public-private partnership. Among the overseas companies hoping to be involved as a supplier is Scomi, a Malaysian-based engineering firm that helped create the Kuala Lumpur monorail and is a partner in the consortium building the Mumbai monorail. The company has carried out an "initial engineering study" into the feasibility of a monorail in Bahrain. Kanesan Velupillai, a senior vice president, insisted the local rail system would bring many benefits. "Because it can navigate through tight corners it [could] become very applicable for Bahrain," he said. In Bahrain, he said, construction and commissioning of early parts of the network could take as little as two to three years. "At the moment we're doing a project in Mumbai that's 30 [months] for the first phase and 36 for the full show," he said. "It's very much a plug and play solution that's available for many countries in the world. You don't see much public transport as simple as that." Mr Velupillai said the number of tenders for monorail projects globally had increased rapidly over the past year, with multiple schemes lined up, for example, in each of Saudi Arabia, Brazil and India. dbardsley@thenational.ae