Ticket to ride: Planned road and rail projects promise to integrate the entire region

While airport projects received the majority of funding from Oman’s eighth five-year plan, land link developments look set to steal the spotlight in 2014. As well as moving forward on a series of major highway upgrades, Oman’s national railway project is finally set to break ground. The Oman Railway Company (ORC) is moving closer to floating construction tenders and the design process is already well under way. Although transforming its port developments into multimodal hubs will require a long-term commitment, this vision will be one step closer to reaching fruition in 2014.

Oman’s 45,985-km highway network is set for further projects, with the Directorate General of Roads and Land Transport in the Ministry of Transport and Communication (MoTC) moving to improve trans-border and domestic land shipping activities. This will increase the volume of sea-to-air transport traffic, while also aiding congestion and safety. Highway upgrades will assume particular importance as commercial shipping activities shift from Muscat to Sohar, while stakeholders in the transportation industry agreed that the development of a national railway network will have a positive impact on competitiveness and efficiency in Oman.

Traffic

As part of the government’s strategy to strengthen land transport links, the MoTC aims to create a national network of highways connecting all major urban areas in the sultanate, and improving links to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Infrastructure upgrades have focused on port and airport developments in recent years, but highway expansion and construction projects have also been under way, with the government announcing plans to invest $14.8bn on land links in the coming years, including investments of $8bn on the construction of 12,704 km of roads. Developments in Duqm and Sohar, which require infrastructure support in the form of roads, bridges, tunnels and highways, will see greater investment in the coming years, while highways and expressways linking Muscat to Saudi Arabia and the UAE can also expect major improvements in 2014. With a deadline of August 2014 for the last commercial shipping activities in Muscat, the Al Batinah Expressway project is the most important highway project in the sultanate, as the road link between Sohar and Muscat will become increasingly congested with transport trucks carrying cargo from Sohar Industrial Port (SIP). The highway, which links Oman to the UAE, already sees high traffic throughout the year, causing delays.

Construction is under way along several stretches of the 265-km, eight-lane expressway, with the MoTC announcing in September 2012 that the project had been divided into 11 different packages worth OR1bn ($2.59bn). So far, five packages have been awarded, with a total value of $1.7bn in investment (see analysis). This should alleviate congestion at SIP, as the Al Batinah Expressway will link to the rapidly expanding industrial area. However, problems have arisen with highway development and project cargo movement at Sohar as flyovers and culverts are not designed for heavy transport trucks, although other roads surrounding the port have been built to include these features.

At the Port of Duqm, commercial director Reggy Vermeulen said the Port of Duqm Company (PDC) has learned from experiences at Sohar, and had designed road construction around the port and the surrounding economic free zone with large transport trucks in mind. “The road network within the free zone is under heavy construction, and has been designed to handle project cargo. All roads are dual carriage, most have at least three lanes and there are no flyovers. Within the Duqm area we are paying a lot of attention to avoid mistakes with culverts, flyovers and low electricity lines,” Vermeulen told OBG.

Modernising Strategy

The government also plans to upgrade and modernise the entire road network leading into and out of Duqm, as well as improving overland connectivity with the sultanate’s oil-rich hinterland. According to the PDC, road connectivity will be upgraded in two stages. In the first phase, all roads will be widened to dual carriageways with shoulders. In the second phase, these roads will be further upgraded to four-lane highways, with construction covering a total of 315 km when completed.

The PDC’s strategy is designed to see the port become the most attractive destination for heavy loads, with the road network able to handle project cargoes of up to 15 metres in width and height, 100 metres in length, and 36 tonnes in weight per axle. Studies on highway projects in Duqm put the cost of connecting the airport, port, dry dock and city itself at OR40.5m ($104.9m), with some already completed, including the paving of a 12-km stretch between Haima and Duqm at a cost of OR971,000 ($2.51m). In July 2013, the MoTC began the first phase of road construction, upgrading the Sinaw road in Al Mudhaibi leading to Duqm at an estimated cost of OR41.68m ($107.95m).

Road links to Saudi Arabia are also set to be transformed, as a project linking the kingdom to Oman through the vast Empty Quarter nears completion, cutting the travelling distance between the two by more than half. The current highway network stretches across 2000 km of desert, weaving through the UAE, but the new highway, which runs across 519 km via the Al Batha border post, will cut the journey to just 800 km, and so eliminate the need to pass through the UAE. Almost all 160 km of the road’s Omani portion has been ready for nine years, but the Saudi section was delayed due to the higher costs of construction on soft sand. Officials announced in August 2013 that the road would be completed before 2015, at an estimated cost of $426m.

All Aboard

Oman’s 2244-km railway network, slated to begin operations in 2018, is a key component in improving domestic, regional and international connectivity in the sultanate. The MoTC is responsible for the implementation of the project and set up the ORC in January 2013 to oversee the planning, design, tendering and construction of the system. The ORC will develop a network extending from Buraimi in the north to Salalah and the Yemeni border in the south. En route, the network will link to Khatmat Malaha, SIP, Muscat, and the ports of Duqm and Salalah. The government announced in September 2013 its intention to use continuous welded rail (CWR) for network construction, allowing trains to travel at faster speeds and carry heavier loads and increasing the overall value of the project. Since the network is slated to carry vast quantities of commodities, including minerals from underdeveloped areas, the benefits of using CWR will be enormous – in addition to providing a passenger service, CWR is less prone to wear and tear, and will require fewer repairs than traditional tracks.

The $15.5bn rail network, which will be partially financed by $10bn of development aid from fellow GCC members, will provide links between domestic production and logistics centres while supporting efforts to open up trade links across the region. When completed the project will form part of the GCC’s 6000-km rail network, which, at a cost of $100bn, will boost trade across the Gulf. The expected economic benefits, and resultant boost to trade, particularly the movement of minerals, should relieve pressure on Oman’s highway network and aid connectivity to ports and cities, developing Oman’s urban centres into multimodal hubs. Rail developments are also set to create 70,000 new jobs in the sultanate. “The railway network is going to be a game changer when it links to Salalah. Shipping is still the cheapest way to transport goods, but rail is faster, and the cost benefit is huge,” Ahmed Akaak, acting CEO of the Port of Salalah, told OBG.

Private

The first phase of the project will be the route from Khatman Malalah in Oman’s north to Duqm industrial development, and will include 20 train stations. The second phase will run to the border with Yemen and feature a further 20 stations. The rail network will offer opportunities for private firms across the board, including design and construction, the supply of materials, infrastructure and rolling stock, and technical services (see analysis). However, the project was delayed following a decision in late 2012 to cancel an initial tender for design consultants over a query on submissions from the state tender board. The contract was re-tendered and won by the Italian firm Italferr with a bid of OR12.35m ($31.99m) in August 2013. In the same month came the announcement that five groups led by international consultants had submitted firm offers to provide project management consultancy services, with the winning firm to be declared before 2014. However, with the creation of the ORC, the government has signalled that private ownership of the network is unlikely. Once the network is fully operational, the company will be responsible for appointing private sector firms to run the system, including hiring, buying and leasing services. The country hopes to have the railway network operating by 2018, with the design stage due to be completed in early 2014 and construction commencing before 2015. “Effective and efficient connectivity in the region is key. This is why Oman and the rest of the GCC are investing so heavily on infrastructure projects,” Warith Al Kharusi, executive director and chairman of the Oman Logistics and Supply Chain Association, told OBG. The railway will add value and encourage regional integration, according to Al Kharusi.

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The Report: Oman 2014

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