Ready to roll: Connecting the emirates by rail is set to provide a raft of benefits

Existing links such as the Emirates Road carriageway and Ras Al Khaimah’s five seaports may very well be joined by another attractive mode of transportation in the near future: a railroad network. The project is called Etihad Rail (etihad means “unity’’ in Arabic), and it aims to connect all of the UAE’s seven emirates by train, as well as eventually link to a wider GCC network. It will be focused on freight and passenger traffic, and may eventually link up all the member states of the GCC. For manufacturers in RAK, the project could reduce overall costs for some types of freight. For the government of the emirate, a railway operating at capacity will reduce the reliance on roads to the extent that budgets for building and maintaining them can be smaller in the future, freeing up money to be used for other development purposes. As currently designed, the total investment, which will be made at the federal level, is estimated at about Dh40bn ($10.9bn).

Rail Revolution

At the moment, the only operational railway in the UAE is the Dubai metro, which celebrated its third anniversary in September 2012. Indeed, there is currently only one other functioning railway line in the GCC, 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 fuel, 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, transported primarily by pipeline, has also reduced the urgency of investing in rail freight lines. However, factors such as worsening traffic problems and the 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 regionally, as have increasing industrialisation and the growth in the importance of oil by-products 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.

Moving Forward 

After several years of planning and anticipation, Etihad Rail was mandated by a federal law in 2009 and the project is poised to start commercial service in 2013, although initial traffic will be limited to an industrial route in Abu Dhabi. RAK is set to see benefits starting in 2018, however, when phase III, the final set of new routes is scheduled to be completed, according to an Etihad Rail presentation. It will have a network of 1200 rail routes, double-tracked almost all of the way. Diesel-powered engines will pull trains at up to 120 km per hour for freight traffic and 200 km per hour for passengers. The tracks are standard gauge and built to accommodate twin-stack containers (two shipping containers stacked on each wagon). The railroad’s design could allow for the possibility of electricity-powered locomotives in the future.

New Links 

These and other specifications are part of Etihad Rail’s focus on the needs of industry and manufacturing. Though manufacturers have different needs depending on their business models, the rail project is targeting a wide range of activities. Those in RAK’s free zones are generally shipping their products to markets outside of the Gulf. Etihad Rail’s plan will include service to Jebel Ali Port in Dubai, which is the common choice for container shipping from RAK. Manufacturers outside of the free zones are typically concerned with serving the markets in the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia, which has a greater population than the other five member countries combined.

With the first phase entering service in 2013, Etihad Rail’s attention has turned to building phases II and III. Invitations to tender for phase II have already gone out, and some contracts have been awarded, with more expected in 2013 and 2014. In July 2012 Etihad Rail 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 tenders are for the design and construction of the 190-km-long section set to run between Liwa and Al Ain, both in Abu Dhabi, and the 137-km-long section between Ghweifat and Ruwais within Abu Dhabi, as well as the contract for communications and signalling for the whole of the second phase, respectively. The third and final phase of the project will result in the network being extended to the Northern Emirates, including both Sharjah and RAK, respectively. The eventual plan will see Etihad Rail linked to a GCC-wide network.


According to Etihad Rail, as of May 2013 a number of contracts for the three phases have already been awarded. The UK’s WS Atkins has a preliminary engineering services contract for phase II and phase III. Hyder Consulting Middle East of Abu Dhabi has been awarded an environmental impact assessment design of the rail network for phase II. Good Harbour Consulting of the US has a safety, risk and security services contract for phase II. The UK’s Fugro has been given a contract for an extended geotechnical survey for phase II. Al Hai & Al Mukaddam for Geotechnical Works of Dubai now has a contract for geotechnical investigation as well, for phase I and phase II design and construction of structures, earthworks and facilities.

While initial phases of the project focus on freight transport, on the passenger side, RAK residents could use a train service to cut down on travel time to Dubai, which is roughly an hour by road. The service could benefit the Al Hamra district in RAK in particular. This area is south of RAK’s city centre and, therefore, closer to Dubai. It is developing as a mixed-use area for industry, tourism and residential developments, and easy rail access could speed up a trend of living in RAK but working in Dubai, ultimately boosting demand for real estate in Al Hamra district.

Knock-On Effects

Outside of RAK, a variety of commercial enterprises with different needs are already signing up for the service. Emirates Steel, for example, is looking to use the railroad as a primary mode of transport for its raw and finished materials, and the UAE’s Al Dahra Agriculture has told Etihad Rail it wants to transport hay. Still other firms, while not planning to use the railway itself, have designs on its infrastructure: telecoms provider Etisalat is interested in using the railway’s framework to boost its own network coverage and capacity.

Etihad Rail is also making the case for rail transport based on environmental and efficiency factors. According to the firm’s research, achieving forecasted traffic volumes would eliminate 2.2m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year because train travel requires less fuel per tonne of cargo than trucks – the most common mode of transport the trains will be replacing. That is equivalent to removing 375,000 cars from the roads, or planting 52m trees. Etihad Rail’s research indicates that road freight using diesel trucks results in 32.4 kg of emissions per 1000 net tonnes per kilometre travelled. That number plunged 83% to 5.6 kg with diesel trains. Although the plan includes the option to run electric-powered locomotives as well, the firm’s studies show that only minor environmental benefits would accrue, assuming the electricity is produced with gas or petroleum as a feedstock. In those scenarios, emissions are expected to drop to 3.7-5.4 kg.

Progress So Far 

Etihad Rail’s first phase is a 264-km stretch from Shah and Habshan, in the south of Abu Dhabi, running north and then west to Ruwais on the Gulf. The route was designed specifically for industrial purposes. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company has processing facilities for sour gas (meaning it contains impurities, chiefly sulphur) at the southern end of the railroad. The purification processing facility located there will remove that sulphur and the gas will be shipped on by pipeline. The sulphur is converted into granules that can then be sent on Etihad Rail project by stages covered wagons to Ruwais for export to commercial customers. Etihad Rail plans for 110 wagons carrying up to 11,000 tonnes at a time.

When complete, the 1200 km of railroad will link five of the seven emirates of the UAE, according to maps from the company, and terminate at the UAE’s borders to the south-east, at Al Ain, Oman, and to the west at Ghweifat, Saudi Arabia. The second phase will expand to the western terminus and also eastward within Abu Dhabi. That includes lines to the south-eastern terminus at the Omani border and a line heading toward Dubai, with spurs to key spots such as industrial zones within Abu Dhabi and that emirate’s airport. Phase two is to be finished by 2017. A third phase, extending to Dubai and north to Sharjah and RAK and then to Fujairah, the emirate on the Gulf of Oman, is slated for completion in 2018.

Expansion from there, going from a UAE-wide network to one servicing the GCC region, would require several new lines. There are some existing railroads in Saudi Arabia, but primarily two coastal lines are envisioned – one linking up with the western terminus of Etihad Rail and proceeding north and west to Kuwait and one at the eastern terminus heading east to Muscat in Oman. Off the northern line would be spurs leading to Bahrain and Qatar.

Within Saudi Arabia a railroad from Riyadh to Jeddah is part of the long-term vision, with two spurs from Jeddah to Medina and Mecca. A north-south line in Saudi Arabia going to Jordan is also a possibility. For RAK, the most significant benefits are the new access points to the Saudi market for manufacturers and industry because of its size in comparison to the rest of the GCC markets.


Selecting rolling stock has come with an additional layer of complexity thanks to the local climate – intense desert heat and wind create a harsh environment for machinery. Seven 4500-horsepower locomotives have been customised by US-based Electro-Motive Diesel based on a contract signed in August 2011. Features designed to protect the locomotives from desert damage include moveable sand ploughs, sealed car bodies to prevent sand from penetrating, and a filtration system to keep dust out of engine intakes. Each locomotive is 22.6 metres long and weighs 187 tonnes. Etihad Rail took delivery of two of the seven locomotives in April 2013. After the delivery, Etihad Rail CEO Nasser Saif Al Mansoori said that progress was moving at an adequate pace to ensure that the first commercial runs would take place before the end of 2013.

Other rolling stock purchases have included 240 covered hopper wagons from China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation, a state-owned enterprise based in Beijing.

Railroad crossties are being built by India’s PCM Strescon Overseas Ventures in a facility designed for this purpose in Abu Dhabi.

Foreign Interest

Other foreign investors that have been marked to participate in the project thus far include Atkins, the UK-based consultancy, as preliminary engineering services consultant; US-based joint venture Parsons-Aecom as project management consultant; and an international consortium for civil and track works consisting of Italy’s Saipem and Tecnimont and the UAE’s Dodsal Engineering and Construction. Financing for the first phase of the network came in the form of a Dh4.7bn ($1.3bn) loan financed by the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank and HSBC Bank Middle East.

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 Amjad Bangash, the senior vice-president at Bechtel Rail, the rail unit of US construction and engineering major Bechtel, told the MENA Rail Projects Conference that he believed that the UAE network could eventually become part of an extensive rail line linking Amman in Jordan to Oman.

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