Since August 2015, red single-decker buses have become increasingly common in Bahrain as the Public Transport Network (PTN), launched four months earlier, expanded to 32 routes to cover 77% of the population. The Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications (MTT) declared the event a “key milestone” in the development of an integrated public transport network envisaged in Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030. However, the MTT, the Ministry of Works (MoW) and other government agencies are appraising plans that to give residents and visitors a greater choice of transport options.

Bus Network

There were 35 buses operating on 12 routes in the kingdom before the PTN was introduced in April 2015, and prior to that the majority of people living in the country could only choose between taxis, mini-buses and their own cars. With the first phase of the network, passengers were served by 22 routes and 77 buses, and with the second phase the size of the fleet almost doubled to 141 vehicles. The MTT says the buses are now able to cater to 50,000 people every day, compared to just 16,000 under the old system. The average frequency of buses across the network will be one every 22 minutes, rising to one every 15 minutes on busier routes.

The fleet is owned and managed by Bahrain Public Transport Company, which was appointed in February 2015, and is a joint venture between the UK’s National Express and Ahmed Mansour Al Aali of Bahrain. In September 2014 National Express estimated that the contract would be worth $259m to it over 10 years. The company has over 25 years of experience in operating public transport networks in Europe and North America. The buses, which have CCTV cameras installed to increase customer confidence, are monitored from a central control system.

The bus network is divided into 14 zones to make ticket pricing simpler. Passengers can buy paper tickets from drivers, but they can also purchase prepaid GO Cards, which are swiped at the beginning and end of each journey. “With the introduction of these cards, the ministry’s efforts will now be focused on introducing more technology to allow e-ticketing, online top-ups and mobile applications to further enhance the user’s experience,” said Mariam Ahmed Jumaan, undersecretary for land transport and post affairs at the MTT, in a statement.

The bus service is also much cheaper than the country’s taxi cabs. For instance, a taxi journey from Bahrain International Airport (BIA) to Seef Mall costs BD9 ($23.70), but the same journey by bus on the A2 service, which runs every 15 minutes, costs BD0.30 ($0.79) and takes 20 minutes.

Improved Facilities

In addition to the introduction of new vehicles, the MTT is investing in refurbishing bus shelters over an 18-month period and on upgrades to the main terminals at Manama, Muharraq and Isa Town. Moreover, bus interchanges are currently being developed at BIA, City Centre Mall, Salmaniya Hospital, Budaiya, Alba and Souq Waqif. Each will have real-time departure displays, manned ticket offices and ticket vending machines. With the implementation of the PTN, eight new routes serve BIA, including a dedicated service for travellers as well as local routes for people working at the airport. In addition, there are new routes to Amwaj Islands, Bahrain University and Mina Salman.

The longer-term future of public transit in Bahrain includes several options, many of which are dependent on major infrastructure investments. The MTT, the MoW and other government departments have drawn up blueprints for structural changes to the transport network as part of Economic Vision 2030. Some of these schemes may be financed by GCC funds, and some of that money is already being invested. This is not the first time that Bahrain has benefitted from its strong alliances with its GCC neighbours. The existing causeway, which has helped make the island nation a popular choice for international investors, is named after the late monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd, and one of Bahrain’s main arterial motorways, Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed Al Sabah Highway, is named after the late ruler of Kuwait.

However, alternative funding mechanisms are also being considered. For instance, a King Hamad Causeway Corporation could potentially be created to fund the construction of a second causeway from future toll receipts. Additionally, MoW staff told OBG that approaches have been made by companies from South Korea, China and France with proposals for public-private partnership models that would include long-term financing for major infrastructure projects. However, the funding package for any future investment would have to be drawn up at a time of significant fiscal pressure on Bahrain’s coffers.

Fiscal Pressure

Deutsche Bank estimates that Bahrain’s fiscal break-even oil price is the highest in the GCC region at $118 per barrel, and significantly higher than the bank’s forecast of $59 per barrel for Brent crude in 2015. Deutsche Bank calculates that this will translate into a fiscal deficit of 15% of GDP in 2015, and the first current account deficit for more than 10 years. It also points out that Bahrain does not have the same fiscal and external buffers as its GCC neighbours when it comes to weathering low oil prices, with foreign exchange reserves of $4.9bn at the end of 2014 and assets in Mumtalakat, the sovereign wealth fund, of $7bn. “The deficits thus largely have to be financed by domestic and external borrowing and this will further increase Bahrain’s already high debt level,” said the Deutsche Bank report.

GCC Network

Despite the short-term fiscal risks to the economy, Bahrain’s infrastructure planners have drawn up plans that would enable the country to ensure it capitalises on any future upturn in the global or regional economy. One of the key components they have factored in to master plan strategies is the GCC Rail Network. The original deadline for the completion of this mega-project, which would link all six nations in a 2177-km network, was 2018. Although progress has been made, most notably in the UAE and in Saudi Arabia, rollout of the broader network will likely take longer. Bahrain was to have had two new causeways, one running parallel to the King Fahd Causeway and the other linking it to Qatar.

In its logistics briefing published in 2014, Bahrain’s Economic Development Board estimated that it would take four years and $5bn to build a new causeway to Saudi Arabia, so 2020 would seem a more likely target. Meanwhile, in a March 2015 speech to an international conference, Qatar Rail’s managing director, Abdulla Abdulaziz Al Subaie, made no explicit mention of the Bahrain causeway, but he did reveal that the four-phase construction of Qatar’s 350-km rail network would start in 2015, and was scheduled to be complete for both passengers and freight by 2030.

Domestic Road Links

Bahrain’s MoW has drawn up a blueprint for the handling of both road and rail traffic from the new King Hamad Causeway. It envisages two northern peripheral road links: the Bahrain Outer Link Road (BOLR) and the Bahrain Northern Link Road (BNLR). The BOLR would be a 20-km route from the new causeway to Khalifa Bin Salman Port, a corridor that would include a motorway and rail lines to handle both freight and passengers. The BNLR would be a 15-km arterial road corridor with a six-to-eight-lane road that could be designed to run alongside either a light rapid transit system or bus rapid transit system, according to the MoW.

To the south of Khalifa Bin Salman Port, a BD125m ($329.3m) Jurdab Link and a fifth Sitra-to-Hidd crossing is also on the drawing board. Light rapid transit or bus rapid transit possibilities are also being considered in plans to build a BD50m ($131.7m) South Bahrain Link Road, which is a 24-km corridor with a six-to-eight-lane highway that would operate between Al Areen Resort and King Hamad Highway.