By Peter Feuilherade
Five years after it opened in 2009 the Dubai Metro, the world’s largest driverless metro network, has reported a 19% annual increase in passenger numbers for 2013-14, with more than 12.4 million journeys completed in August 2014. The metro carries a daily average of around 500,000 passengers.
The ‘Dubai Metro effect’ has given a major impetus to metro construction elsewhere in the Gulf. “Where Dubai leads, others follow,” Edward James, director of analysis at Meed Projects, said at a railway industry summit in Dubai in October 2014.
GCC countries are spending dozens of billions of dollars to launch metro, tram and urban light rail systems. By investing heavily in public transport infrastructure and services, they aim to cut vehicle congestion and reduce the impact of air and noise pollution on their fast-growing populations.
The main projects are the $22bn Riyadh metro, due for completion in 2018‑19, and the $10bn Doha metro, whose first passengers are expected in 2019. Metro networks are also planned in major Saudi cities, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi. Dubai itself is extending its metro systems and launching a new tram network as part of preparations for Expo 2020.
In all, more than 3,000 km of new metro routes are planned or under way across the entire MENA region.
The Riyadh Metro has been described as the world’s biggest current investment in public transport. This huge $22.5bn infrastructure project involves the simultaneous construction of six lines with 87 stations and driverless automated trains running on 176 km of track (73 km underground). With a planned capacity of 1,160,000 passengers a day, it will cover most of the populated areas of the Saudi capital. Riyadh’s current population of 5.7 million is forecast to grow to 8.3 million by 2030, while transport demand is expected to rise even more rapidly, with a 60% increase predicted over the same period. The metro project is only one component of a long-term public transport vision for the capital, which also envisages developing and expanding its bus network.
In Jeddah a US$ 12 billion metro system is due to open in 2022, with three lines totalling 152 km. In Makkah, a 124-km metro system is being built comprising four lines and 66 stations. It will connect with the station for the high-speed Haramain railway linking Makkah, Medina and Jeddah, and also with the existing Mashaer rail system, an 18-km line which opened in 2010 and links the pilgrimage sites of Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat. And in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, $16bn has been earmarked for a public transport system comprising light rail, metro and buses which will link Qatif, Dammam and Dhahran.
In Dubai, work is under way on three extensions which will add 35.4 km and 33 stations to the metro network in time for Expo 2020. The first light rail line in the emirate, Al Sufouh Tramway (better known as Dubai Tram), was inaugurated in November 2014.
Qatar’s main projects are a light rail (tram) system in the new waterfront city of Lusail and the four-line, 354‑km Doha Metro, a $10bn network due for completion in 2019. Feeder buses will extend the service’s reach from metro stations to neighbourhoods which would be too far to walk to in the hot climate.
Kuwait City’s planned $20bn, 61-station, three-line metro system will be implemented as a public‑private partnership, with construction expected to begin in 2017.
Other significant urban rail projects launched or completed across the MENA region in 2014 include the Algiers Metro extension and the building or expansion of light rail networks in the Algerian cities of Setif and Constantine; the extension of metro lines in Cairo and Tehran and the launch of the first phase of a metro network in the Iranian city of Shiraz.
Catalysts for growth
Across the MENA region as a whole, the combined value of rail and metro projects under way or planned is around $300bn. These huge investments will place Middle Eastern cities among the world’s most advanced for public transport in the next 15-20 years, bringing them on a par with Hong Kong and Singapore, according to Ghassan Ziadat, director of planning and infrastructure at Atkins, a global design and engineering consultancy.
The prospects and economic opportunities are immense: these new metro projects require sophisticated rail systems, construction and ICT services as well as vast quantities of basic building commodities such as steel and cement, plus a workforce of hundreds of thousands of labourers and thousands of engineers and technical staff.
The hope is that these ambitious projects will act as catalysts for economic growth. Much of this investment in new urban public transport systems in the GCC will be tendered to the private sector. Local contractors may not necessarily have specific or relevant rail construction experience, but they can bring their own local market expertise.
“MENA companies should certainly look to partner with foreign contractors. That combination of global reach and industry knowledge with a strong understanding of how the local market works can be a winning formula,” says Andrew Jeffery, director, infrastructure and capital projects at Deloitte Middle East.
The challenge remains of how to change citizens’ attitudes and promote greater use of urban public transport. Heavy dependence on private cars and taxis, the absence of standard policies and regulations and the lack of private sector capacity are obstacles still to be overcome.
Engineer Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Turki Al Subaie, managing director of Qatar Rail, says what is needed is a mindset that supports public transport and the concept of ‘sharing is caring’. “In the end, it is not sustainable that everyone has their own car, and we have to be very conscious of our environment,” he believes.