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Sunday, July 14, 2024

The Middle Eastern Express – a railway through the desert

by Philip Weiss

© Shutterstock
© : Richard Bowker, CEO Etihad Rail and Saeed Al Mutawa Al Dhaheri, Vice President Projects, Arkan sign business agrement, September 2011

An ambitious rail project is set to have a massive impact not only on the UAE but the Middle East in general

Given how modernised it is in many respects, it may come as a surprise that the UAE has no railway line. However it makes sense when its harsh desert climate is considered and the fact that large tracts of land here are little more than sand dunes for as far as the eye can see.

Advances in technology however now mean that a railway line can be built through the desert, and before the end of the decade, it will be possible not only to cross the UAE, but much of the Middle East by rail.

Work has already begun on building lines in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and they will eventually connect to form a wider GCC network called the Union Railway Project.

The colossal Dh 470 billion-plan will offer access like never before to the Arabian Peninsula and have a huge impact on business in the Middle East.

Eithad Rail
Etihad Rail, which is developing a Dh40 billion train line in the UAE, started laying the 1,200kms of track in January 2011. It’s expected to take eight years to complete and when finished, will pass through each of the seven emirates.

The first part of the national 1,200km railway should be finished by 2014. Stage two will link Abu Dhabi to Jebel Ali, and in stage three, the railway will be rolled out to the remaining Northern Emirates.

Though the network is designed to transport about 50 million tonnes of cargo, such as heavy industrial products like steel and concrete, it will also have the capacity for up to 16 million passengers per year.

The Union Railway Project will start at Ghweifat on the Saudi Arabian border, travel to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, where a junction will take the line to the Al Ain Industrial Zone and onwards into Oman to Port Sohar on the Indian Ocean, before it heads down along the coast to Muscat.

The main line is to continue north towards Jebel Ali in Dubai, inland close to DubaiLand and on to Sharjah, Ras al Khaimah, Port Saqr and then across the mountains into Fujairah.

The Abu Dhabi freight and passenger line will cover 588km and will pass through Abu Dhabi International Airport, Khalifa Port and Musaffah; while the Shah-Habshan-Ruwais line will cover 264km; and the Dubai and Northern Emirates freight and passenger line will stretch 363km.

While freight is the priority for now, there are also tentative plans for a 311km Gulf Coast high-speed passenger line that will connect Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates.

Other rail projects that will connect to the UAE network includes the Saudi Arabian 1,000km Land bridge – the East-West Railway LINE which will run from Jeddah and Damman and bridge the gap between the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf.

This will consist of two tracks. On completion, it’s estimated it will be able to transport some 300 million passengers and one billion tonnes of freight per year.

Qatar Rail
Meanwhile, in Qatar there are plans to construct a railway line that will eventually be the biggest outside China – incorporating both city and long distance trains. This is of particular importance given that it will host the 2022 Football World Cup.

There will be four metro lines, as well as a light rail system and a long distance train track in Doha by June 12, 2020, the deadline given by Fifa. However this ambitious project is still at a very early stage. It’s estimated that it will cost 130 billion Qatari rial (Dhs131.15 billion) and the government is currently looking for investors.

Saudi Rail
In Saudi Arabia, work began on a railway line, which will eventually cover 2,400kms, last year and it’s hoped that passengers will be able to use it by 2014.

The impact this will have on the region was emphasised by Rumaih Al Rumaih, the Chief Executive of Saudi Railway. Speaking at a Meed rail conference in Abu Dhabi in September 2011, he explained that Saudi Rail is already in talks with two of the country’s biggest exporters about transporting oil and petrochemicals from Riyadh to the northern border of Jordan.

Already 1,400km of railway line has been completed and this connects to a phosphate mine in Al Jalamid.

If the deadlines for all three countries are met, the trains will facilitate thousands of football fans flocking to the region for the World Cup. The routes will run through the desert, rather than along the coast.

They will also have a huge affect on business. Deals have already been struck between Etihad Rail and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) to transport up to seven million tonnes of granulated sulphur annually.

While freight is the priority for now, the Union Railway has also drawn up tentative plans for a 311km Gulf Coast high-speed passenger line connecting Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and the Northern Emirates. The impact of this entire project should not be under estimated. It will transform the way the Arabian Gulf cities function.

According to a recent study by Union Railway, during peak hours, up to 16,000 passengers travel between the three urban centres of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah in one direction every hour.

Another recent survey by Regus, a global serviced offices company, found that 91 per cent of UAE residents use cars for commuting to work every day.

“What is clear is that there is a very high potential demand for rail passenger transport,” Graeme Overall, a senior manager of business development at Union Railway said during the Meed rail conference in Abu Dhabi last year.

All of the services will be amongst the fastest and most efficient in the world. The passengers services are expected to run at speeds of 160kph to 200kph; while the freight trains will operate at a speed of between 80kph to 120kph.

What’s more, the railway is expected to significantly lower CO2 levels, emitted by vehicles such as lorries used for industrial transport. It’s estimated that one train can handle the freight load of 300 lorries.

As for the stunning views along the way – miles and miles of red and golden sand dunes, elegantly sloping and rising and falling with ease, travelling in the Middle East will never be the same...

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