GCC rail network to help economies

Friday 03/07/2015
GCC railway

Dubai - The dramatic economic growth that Gulf Coop­eration Council (GCC) countries have witnessed in the last four decades has been paralleled by a surge in demand for a supportive infra­structure, including road, sea and air transport facilities.
But it is becoming more evident that growth in metropolitan travel and economic exchange cannot be met by roads alone but necessitates a modern and effective railway net­work.
The project to set up a Gulf rail­way linking all six GCC countries was first approved at a GCC summit in 2009. A 2018 deadline to com­plete the work was set at subse­quent meetings.
Experts agree on the need for Gulf countries to invest in rail de­spite the financial and technologi­cal challenges because rail offers dividends on many fronts — eco­nomic and social — as well as in pro­moting sustainable development. “The Gulf rail project will entail significant investments across all member-states, given the lowered oil price impacting revenues of oil exports, but the benefits are plen­ty,” said Salvador Zarate, of A.T. Kearney, a US-based global man­agement consulting firm.
“The GCC railway will contribute to Gulf countries’ efforts to diversi­fy their economies by helping them boost the competitiveness of their industries,” Zarate said in an inter­view with The Arab Weekly.
He said this will happen through the combination of several effects, including reduction in transporta­tion costs and environmental pol­lution as a result of switching from road to rail, and improvement of the reliability of supply chains.
The impact on the movement of people will also be significant, Zarate explained. “On the one hand, the railway will take a sig­nificant market share in trips short­er than 600 kilometres, such as Dubai-Abu Dhabi or Riyadh-Dam­mam.” he said. “On the other, the decrease in the number of trucks on GCC roads will contribute to in­creasing their average speed and safety.”
The $15.4 billion project entail­ing the construction of a 2,177km regional network starts in Kuwait, connecting it with Bahrain, via Dammam in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. From Dammam, the railway would link the Saudi kingdom with Qatar through Salwa border post and Bahrain with Qatar via a Qatar-Bahrain causeway.
Also from Saudi Arabia, the net­work would go south to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain in the United Arab Emir­ates, via Al Batha border area, and end up in Oman across the coastal city of Sohar, to Muscat.
According to Julian Hill, regional managing director of Atkins, a lead­ing design, engineering and project management consultancies in the region, who monitors railway de­velopments in the Middle East, the network is a must for developing economies such as the GCC’s.
“Successful, prosperous and growing countries and cities need high-quality modes of mass public transportation,” Hill told The Arab Weekly. He said that in addition to its immense economic and social benefits, “rail, as a mode of trans­port, is cost-effective and environ­mentally sustainable”.
“Advances in technology and innovation will enable smart, in­tegrated and personal rail travel everywhere. This is a global trend and it applies to the Middle East as much as to China, Europe or the US, where high-speed rail is very high on the agenda,” Hill added.
The Gulf railway has gone be­yond design stage and work is under way. Nonetheless, officials acknowledge it is unlikely that all countries will meet the 2018 dead­line.
Among the six GCC states, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken concrete steps to implement their parts of the collective project. The two countries are on schedule to link their networks. Other states are expected to join onto the main network when they are ready.
In Saudi Arabia, design work for the “land bridge project,” a 950km line for cargo and passengers that will connect the kingdom’s Red Sea and Gulf coasts, in addition to the links between existing Saudi lines and the GCC network, is almost completed.
In the UAE, the 1,200km national railway network, Etihad Rail, is un­der construction over three stages. It will link main population centres and economic hubs and will form a vital part of the planned GCC rail­way.
In the meantime, Qatar is set to award the contract for the first phase of the line that is to connect it to Saudi Arabia in mid-2016, with commercial service expected to be­gin by 2018.
However, indications are that Oman and Kuwait might miss the deadline because of delays in awarding contracts and finalising design plans.
In Bahrain, preliminary studies have been completed for the rail­way and for a second causeway linking the country to Saudi Arabia but bids are still to be determined for the design stage.
Once the rail network is ready, laws will be needed to regulate op­erations. Here, too, finalisation will follow after the countries enact their own regulatory legislation.
The Gulf Rail Authority, which will be running the entity, will have to focus on three major areas: the legal framework for interoperabil­ity; technical harmonisation and standardisation; and safety.
That will ultimately pave the way for a smooth pan-GCC travel expe­rience.

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