All aboard: A revolutionary project to strengthen transport links across the GCC

Putting a definitive end to the historic reliance on road vehicles for land transport prevalent in both the UAE and the wider Gulf region, a state-backed firm is currently in the process of building an ambitious national rail network that will significantly expand and improve freight and – in the longer term – passenger transport options across the emirates.

What started as an Abu Dhabi-only initiative has now expanded to the other parts of the country, and the bulk of the network, including the entirety of the first phase, will be located in the emirate. The lines will connect with key ports across the UAE, as well as with railways in neighbouring countries, eventually forming part of a wider regional rail network as other GCC states also invest significantly in developing their rail infrastructure.

RAIL REVOLUTION: At the moment, the only operational railway in the UAE is the Dubai metro, which celebrated its third anniversary of operations in September 2012. Indeed, there is currently only one other functioning railway line in the GCC as a whole, namely the Riyadh to Dammam passenger and freight line in Saudi Arabia. Factors that have undermined the attractiveness of rail in both the UAE and wider region include the availability of cheap oil, which has boosted road use, and the technical difficulties involved in building on desert sands. The fact that the main commodities produced in the region have traditionally been hydrocarbons, which are transported primarily by pipeline, has also reduced the urgency of investing in rail freight lines.

However, factors such as worsening traffic problems, and a realisation that at times of sustained high oil prices it makes more sense to sell oil internationally rather than consume it heavily at home, have boosted the appeal of rail, as have increasing industrialisation and the growth in importance of oil byproducts and other bulk goods. Governments in the region are thus starting to reach into their pockets and spend heavily on rail infrastructure, with around $100bn of investment in railway projects currently planned across the GCC states.

Abu Dhabi and the UAE are no exceptions to the trend and work has begun on a major national rail project being developed by the state-backed Etihad Rail, which was created by federal law in 2009. The project is being built over three phases that, when completed, will comprise 1200 km of railway, at a total investment cost of Dh40bn ($10.89bn). The project began life as an Abu Dhabi-only network, but has since expanded in conception into a national railway system, although eight of the 13 main hubs along the network will be in Abu Dhabi itself.

PROJECT DETAILS: The completed network will run from Al Ghweifat on the Saudi border in the west of the country to Ruwais, after which it will split in two, with one line heading south to Liwa and Shah. The main line will continue east, before itself splitting into one line that runs south-east to Al Ain and another that continues north-east towards Fujairah and then Khor Fakkan. The latter line will also have branches running off it to three different locations in and around Abu Dhabi City – namely Abu Dhabi Industrial City, the industrial town of Mussafah and Khalifah Port – as well as to Jebel Ali in Dubai, Sharjah and Port Saqr in Ras Al Khaimah.

The first phase of the project, which will be located entirely in Abu Dhabi, involves construction of a 266 km train line from Ruwais to Habshan and Shah in the south of the emirate. Etihad Rail is building the section in partnership with Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which will use it to transport granulated sulphur (sulphur is as a by-product from its oil and gas operations in Shah and Habshan) to Ruwais, where it operates a sulphur terminal. Construction of the first phase has already begun and is currently scheduled for completion in 2013.

Etihad Rail awarded the construction of the civil and track works for the phase, worth Dh3.3bn ($898.2m), to a consortium comprising Saipem and Tecnimont of Italy and UAE firm Dodsal Engineering and Construction, in October 2011. In July 2012 the firm issued invitations to bid for tender elements of the 600-km second stage of the project, which will extend the network to Al Ain and the eastern border, connecting to neighbouring Oman, and to Ghweifat in the west, linking it to Saudi Arabia, as well as to rail terminals in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The individual tenders are respectively for the design and construction of the 190-km-long section running between Liwa and Al Ain and the 137-km-long section between Ghweifat and Ruwais as well as the contract for communications and signalling for the whole of the second phase. The third and final phase of the project will result in the network extended to the Northern Emirates including both Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, respectively.

The project is encouraging, and continues to gain momentum. For example, in October 2012, Etihad Rail announced that the line’s route between Abu Dhabi and Dubai has been decided, following a meeting between the company and government officials. In late 2012 the company and the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council signed a service-level agreement for reviewing the allocation of land for facilities such as stations and depots in the emirate.

SAND CHALLENGE: As noted above, a key challenge to building rail infrastructure in the region is its desert topography, and in particular problems caused by sand, due to factors such as sand dunes’ propensity to slowly move, and issues caused by large sand particles sticking to the tracks.

In order to evaluate and address the difficulties involved, Etihad undertook a pilot study on the issue as well as research in countries that have sought to deal with the same problem, such as China, Mauritania and Saudi Arabia, among others. Measures being taken to address the issue include custom modifications of SD60-ACS locomotives ordered by the firm from US company Electro-Motive Diesel, which will have high-tech features such as sand filtration systems and adjustable sand ploughs.

FREIGHT FOCUS: The first services to run on the network will be freight only, with a maximum speed of 120 km per hour. Etihad Rail has discussed and reached agreements with a number of important industrial customers regarding key products to be transported by the freight service; these include but are not exclusive to hydrocarbons, cement, metals such as iron and steel, and bulk liquids.

The company initially planned to build a dedicated passenger train service between Abu Dhabi and Dubai; however, it put this on hold in 2011. Nevertheless, Etihad Rail still appears to envisage running passenger services along the main network, with reported plans to build up to 10 passenger stations, at speeds of up to 200 km per hour (the presence of sand limits the maximum achievable speed, ruling out for the moment the construction of a French or Japanese-style high-speed network with speeds of up to 300 km per hour).

BENEFITS: The construction of the network will provide the UAE with a number of key benefits, such as reduced traffic and CO 2 emissions and faster journeys as well as more efficient transportation of some bulk goods in particular. The railway will further boost the attractiveness of the country’s major ports by offering an alternative to road and integrated transport options, with Etihad Rail having already reached an agreement with port operator DP World for the construction of an intermodal rail terminal at Jebel Ali to facilitate the transfer of containers.

The project is also anticipated to boost the UAE’s telecommunications network, as Etihad Rail has granted access to the network to local telecoms operators Etisalat and du for use in expanding their infrastructure. The project is also spurring local industry; for example, Indian firm PCM Strescon Overseas ventures will manufacture sleepers for the network at a specially built factory in the UAE.

The project will ultimately help to strengthen transport and communication links between the Gulf states and aid regional integration: the lines will link the UAE with both of its neighbours, crossing into Saudi Arabia at Al Ghweifat and into Oman at Al Ain, and will eventually form part of a wider GCC rail network running from Kuwait all the way to Oman.

A detailed engineering design for the regional network is due to be completed by the middle of 2014, and regional officials told Reuters in October 2012 that it could enter into service by 2018. In October 2012, Dr Amjad Bangash, senior vice-president at Bechtel Rail, the rail unit of US construction and engineering major Bechtel, told the MENA Rail Projects Conference he believed that the UAE network could eventually become part of an extensive rail line linking Amman, in Jordan to Oman.

The development of such a network would entail a significant expansion of transport and logistics options available in the region, boosting a wide range of industries and the regional economy as a whole.

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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2013

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