As part of its economic diversification strategy, Vision 2030, Bahrain is planning to develop an internal public transport network and to build rail connections to both Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Bahrain’s Ministry of Transport is in the process of finalising the country’s railway master plan, which was due to be completed by the end of 2012, but no details of this had been made public as of May 2013.

Rising trade, increasing congestion in the cities, environmental considerations and the desire to diversify the transport options available are all behind the push for a new rail network, as is the ambition to link all the states of the Arabian Peninsula, which was agreed to in principle in 2004, when the GCC ratified an agreement to build a pan-GCC railway by 2018. For Bahrain, the smallest GCC member state both in size and population, the advent of the GCC railway is a welcome opportunity to develop closer infrastructure connections with its neighbours, and thereby benefit its economy.

THE STATS: Bahrain has an area of just 765 sq km and is around 50 km at its widest point. Bahrain is also one of the most densely populated countries in the region, with an average density of 1660 people per sq km, according to the World Bank, and 89% of the populace in urban areas. Unlike most of its neighbours and despite land reclamation projects, the island nation does not have the space to build vast highway networks, and at the same time its existing density makes it easier for mass transit systems to be accessible to more people. Furthermore, connectivity is a major advantage for the Bahraini economy and therefore the railway stands to bring considerable economic gains.

Although the nation’s compact size poses fewer challenges to building the railway in terms of difficult terrain, the line is required to link the port with the airport, and therefore to the capital city of Manama, meaning any route will need to pass through densely populated urban areas. While details of the master plan had not been released as of May 2013, a large variety of options for the route have already been proposed.

CONNECTIONS: Essentially, Bahrain plans to build both a domestic mass transit network and an external connection geared toward freight, although passenger connections will run to both Doha, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. According to initial estimates from the Economic Development Board (EDB), the domestic system will include a light railway, metro network (or perhaps a combination of the two) and tram system. The total length of the network would be 184 km and the cost of building the system is estimated in the region of BD3bn ($7.9bn); it is due for completion by 2030, although sections of it may be up and running earlier. It would connect a number of outlying towns and suburbs to the central business district of Manama, and thus to the island of Muharraq – home to the main airport and a major population centre in its own right – as well as to Hidd, a small island off Muharraq where the new Khalifa Bin Salman Port (KBSP) is located and several industrial zones have sprung up over the past few years.

EASY MOVEMENT: If the proposed Economic Industrial City materialises, it is likely to be off the coast of Muharraq and thus, easily connectible to the light rail system. The Bahrain Airport Company, which operates the Bahrain International Airport, is in the process of coming up with a design for a new terminal building, which would involve extensive remodelling of the airport site. Under the latest proposals, the new terminal will include both a specific site for a railway to pass through and a bus station to allow for easier and cheaper passage of travellers to and from Manama. Currently, many have to rely on taxis to get them to their destination.

Indeed, the local bus network is likely to emerge as a beneficiary of the renewed focus of public transport. The system now relies on relatively old vehicles operating a few key routes, affecting its reliability and punctuality. While light rail can serve as a means to transporting passengers rapidly between a few key nodes, buses can be used to transport passengers onward from those nodes much cheaper, especially outside of the central business district (CDB) where traffic congestion is less of an issue.

FOLLOWING SUIT: Several other areas in the Gulf have managed to successfully upgrade their bus networks alongside investment in mass transit systems over the past few years, such as Dubai, which opened the first metro in the Gulf in 2009, and Abu Dhabi, which has been expanding its bus network over the past few years by investing in new vehicles and air-conditioned bus shelters to encourage the public to use the system. Bahrain, which is more compact, should be able to produce a system equally as good.

In terms of Bahrain’s external connection to the rest of the Gulf, the proposed Bahrain-Saudi Arabia railway is due to stretch some 90 km and to cost in the region of $4.5bn. Although the exact route has not been determined yet, the line is likely to follow the path of the existing King Fahd Causeway, which is around 26 km long, and upon making landfall in Bahrain, skirt the island’s northern coast – perhaps running along reclaimed land – before it reaches a central station for passengers, most likely in the existing CDB. From there, the railway will continue to the airport and KBSP, although it remains unclear whether this will share track with Bahrain’s light rail system or have its own dedicated line. From Manama, the line will then run south toward the vicinity of Riffa on Bahrain’s east coast, where the planned 40-km Qatar-Bahrain Causeway is expected to hit dry land, and finally continue to the Qatari capital of Doha and the Lower Gulf region.

The causeway to Qatar forms an important part of that country’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and the Qatari authorities have pledged that the project will be 40% complete by 2018. The causeway will carry both rail and road transport, with the road section expected to cost around $5.5bn according to preliminary EDB estimates, but it is not yet clear how the construction costs will be shared between the two countries.

FINDING SUPPORT: This said, much of the financial aid that has been advanced to Bahrain by the GCC states post-2011 is being spent on infrastructure, and Bahrain can expect a certain degree of backing when it comes to constructing the railway. Financing options mooted so far include a straightforward construction contract issued by the governments of both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, or a build-operate-transfer model to avoid potentially onerous upfront costs. Already, a number of contracting firms from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US and Italy, among other nations, have expressed significant interest in bidding for the project.

NEXT DOOR RELATIONS: The prospect of a rail network linking the Arabian Peninsula looks set to give a major boost to all the economies in the region. A number of GCC countries have already broken ground on railway projects, including the UAE, whose 1200-km Etihad Railway is scheduled for completion in 2016 at a total cost of $11bn, and Saudi Arabia, where the 450-km Haramain High-Speed Rail, designed to transport pilgrims quickly and safely between Jeddah and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, is due to be up and running by 2014.

Saudi Arabia is also working on the so-called Landbridge, a 945-km railway linking the port of Jeddah to the capital Riyadh, which already has a rail connection to the port of Dammam in the east of the country, and thus to the industrial city of Jubail and the new industrial centre at Ras al Zour. From Dammam, the railway will cross into Bahrain, raising the prospect of direct freight services between Jeddah and the northern Gulf, and saving nine days in travel time when compared to travelling by sea. The broader GCC Railway will stretch 2200 km, linking Kuwait to Salalah in Oman and will cost $15.5bn. Moreover, in early 2013, the resident advisor at the GCC Secretariat stated that a strategic rail authority for the region could be running as early as 2014.