The concept of a high speed rail network linking the countries of The Gulf Cooperation Council is not a new one. Yet, despite, all the evidence that such a project would make sound economic sense, some countries are still dragging their feet.
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.
This article by Krishna Kumar originally appeared in The Arab Weekly