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March 10, 2014

A window of opportunity – inside the GCC rail revolution

The Gulf Coast Countries’ transport industry is at a turning point as they experience their biggest rail boom yet. Frances Marcellin explores its future which includes a $200bn, 2,200km railway line project

By Daniel Garrun

King Abdullah

The Gulf Coast Countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – are currently experiencing the biggest rail boom ever to be seen in these nations. For nations that have previously relied on road infrastructure for transporting goods and its growing populations, they are now at a significant turning point in the region’s transportation history.

Frost & Sullivan’s report on the GCC rail sector offers four tangible reasons as to why GCC countries did not focus on rail transport: 1) the small geographic size of nations (so road was preferred over rail); 2) unfavourable geographic conditions (such as shifting sand dunes and volatile ground surface); 3) availability of cheap fuel for road transport (GCC nations are rich in oil and fuel prices are low); and 4) high investment costs against potential low returns (cargo volumes are dependent on the oil and gas which prefers the use of pipelines).

But now, due to a combination of reasons – which are being driven forward by Qatar winning the bid to host the World Cup in 2022 – a series of major rail projects are planned, from large overland rail links to vast subway systems, which are worth around $194 billion.

"There are several factors coinciding to drive the GCC rail boom," says Richard Thompson, Editorial Director of MEED, providers of intelligence and analysis on the Middle East’s economies and activities. "Prime among these is that the region’s existing road-based transport network is not able to cope with the rapid growth of urban populations in the region and metros are needed to reduce congestion and facilitate mobility. At the same time mainline freight and passenger links are needed to improve transportation across the region."

He adds that the key driver behind the timing is the sustained high-oil prices and high oil production levels that are delivering huge budget surplus and have wiped out government debts. "The region’s governments know that they have a window of opportunity to reinvest their petrodollars into infrastructure – and they are using it," he says.

Linking six nations

There are currently around 24 projects, with some of the most expensive including the Etihad Railway Network ($11 billion), Riyadh Metro ($23 billion), Jeddah Metro ($11 billion), and the Qatar Integrated Rail Project ($40 billion).

In what has been a turning point for the number of contracts awarded throughout 2013, Thompson says that the region’s rail industry has now entered the project delivery phase, and that the region needs to gear up to deliver a major rail boom.

Abu Dhabi is leading the GCC rail revolution, which is being co-ordinated by the GCC Railway Authority, with the development of the 1,200km Etihad Railway.

"There is a plan to build a GCC regional rail network linking all six GCC and ultimately linking to Yemen in the south, and Iraq and Jordan in the North," said Thompson. "The project essentially involves integrating the six national rail networks that are currently under development. It is down to the GCC Railway Authority to provide an overarching regional plan and to work with the separate national railway organisations to create an integrated regional network that everybody is committed to supporting. The Authority is at a very advanced stage in this work and is currently working on technical standards to support the development of the regional network."

Setting the pace

Riyadh’s current five-million population has doubled since 1990 and the new metro system will relieve congestion on the roads and become the backbone of the city’s public transport system. There are three consortiums, FAST, BACS and Arriyadh New Mobility, working on the subway network that comprises 176km of track, 85 stations and six unground lines. These will connect the King Khaled International Airport, the National Guard, the main railway station and the King Abdullah Financial District.

The design of the latter metro station is one of the most recent contracts to be awarded and Zaha Hadid Architects will be taking on the challenge. At just over 20,400 square feet, this station will be a key interchange on the network and include four floors and a two-storey underground car parks.

Snøhetta, a Norwegian architecture firm, was selected to design the main station in Riyadh’s underground network. A stainless steel canopy will provide a landmark for the entrance to the station which will be a bright, plaza-like environment filled with natural light and Earlier this year Bombardier won a contract to deliver 47 two-car driverless Innovia Metro 300 trains which was valued at $383 million. The consortium’s entire contract is valued at around $5.9 billion.

Due to be operational in 2019 – but with King Abdullah allegedly instructing the system to be completed in four years – this metro system is setting a the pace for other metro projects, such as the Jeddah metro, which will offer three lines over 108km. Most of the kingdom’s cities are now in the throes of developing subways and other public transportation systems.

Challenges of old

While the need and demand for an efficient rail network in the GCC countries has increased, the challenges, which prevented development of rail infrastructure in the past, still remain the same. And there are many: infrastructure must be able to withstand the heat and hold up in the sand; a large number of qualified engineers and construction workers are required yet resources are limited; and an effective collaboration between GCC countries is vital for holistic success.

For Thompson, the primary challenge is resources. "There is no significant rail industry in the region – the challenge for government is to build a GCC rail industry from scratch covering skills, capacity, legislation, culture, and so on," he says. "In addition, we have a sudden spike in rail projects and limited resources. Everybody will be competing for the same small pool of resources. It represents a great opportunity for rail industry specialists but there is a real risk of delays and price escalation unless the region can coordinate its efforts."

World Cup preparation

Having this rail network in place is essential to a positive outcome for Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in 2022, which will hold matches in newly-designed stadiums in various locations around the country, including Al-Khor to Doha and Al Wakrah (Zaha Hadid Architects, in association with AECOM, is designing this 40,000-capacity stadium). But will the network be ready in time to support, not just football’s biggest event, but the largest single-event sporting competition in the world?

Qatar’s Integrated Rail Project, is a central pillar of Qatar’s Vision 2013 economic development strategy, explains Thompson, of which the World Cup 2022 is a major milestone. "This has injected a real drive behind the metro scheme and is forcing the pace of the development," he says. "Doha knows that it is working to a very tight deadline and is putting enormous effort into getting Doha Metro built."

With the last World Cup, which was held in South Africa, attracting 3,170,856 spectators over its 64 matches – the third highest aggregate behind the USA in 1994 (3,587,358 spectators) and Germany in 2006 (3,359,439) – it is certainly vital that the country’s infrastructure will be ready to welcome, support and sustain such a peak in public transportation usage if it is to host a successful tournament in 2022.

Follow Frances Marcellin on Google+

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