Standing on the platform of West Bay rail station in Doha’s business district, where skyscrapers jostle for space and attention, Sandeep Kolli –  an engineer from the Japanese manufacturing company Mitsubishi – beamed with pride.

For months, the 35-year-old Indian national had played a small but significant role in the construction of Qatar Rail’s new, $36 billion Doha metro project, helping off-load the trains from Japan to the Qatari capital.

Now he, and a crowd of other excited commuters, had the pleasure to see the new trains in action – riding the metro for the first time as it opened to the public on a typically scorching Wednesday last May.

“It’s a landmark for Qatar,” Kolli told Al Jazeera.

Kolli wasn’t the only one who sensed the importance of the occasion. In two days following its soft launch, 86,487 people rode the new trains according to Qatar Rail – a volume of riders the state-owned company said “affirms the instrumental role Doha Metro will play in transforming public transport sector.”

Transforming public sector transport

Few can contest how transformative the service will be for residents. For years, the majority of people travelling around Doha – a rapidly growing city that aims to become one of the world’s leading finance and business centres – have used cars, taxis and buses.

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This has caused a growing amount of congestion on roads, especially during peak periods, which negatively impacts economic life and general well-being. According to some estimates, delays due to congestion cost Qatar’s economy between 1%-2% of GDP each year.

“The planned national network will unify all railway in Qatar.”

The Doha Metro – Qatar’s first-ever underground railway system – is designed to alleviate these traffic problems and accommodate future growth in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which the Gulf state is hosting.

“Transport and mobility are important for any city, but it becomes even more critical for rapidly growing cities where demand is increasing exponentially each year,” Qatar Rail managing director Abdulla Abdulaziz Al Subaie told KPMG.

The metro system will support Qatar’s wider 2030 “National Vision” – a strategy for driving economic and social progress – and will be joined by two other major rail projects: the Lusail Tram – that will serve residents of Lusail City and connect them to Doha – and the Long Distance Rail, which will be connected to the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rail network.

Put together, Qatar Rail says “the planned national network will unify all railway in Qatar and will be connected to neighbouring countries to create the region’s first fully integrated rail system.”

Modern design

For the time being the Metro system will run at a limited service on the ‘Red Line’, from the seafront district of al-Qassar, through the central business district, and ending up at the southern city of al-Wakrah.

When it is fully operational, the Red Line will run 40km from al-Wakra in the south to Lusail City in the north, and will be joined by three other lines – Green, Gold and Blue. Construction is expected to be completed by 2026.

The driverless trains can travel at speeds up to 100km/h, and have been divided into three compartments – standard class, family section and Gold Club. Each train has 130 seats and can accommodate a total of 416 people.

“The driverless trains can travel at speeds up to 100km/h.”

The Red Line stations are all air-conditioned, offer high-tech features and a design that respects local heritage. Each station has a police booth, prayer areas for men and women, electronic monitors with service details, security cameras and more.

To link all of Doha’s major locations together, engineers had to build 111km of new metro tunnels and almost 9km of viaducts for the elevated sections. The tunnels were completed in just 26 months at a peak rate of 2.5km of tunnel each week.

“The world has never seen such performance,” said Martin Herrenknecht, chairman of the board of management at the German company Herrenknecht, which supplied and operated the project’s tunnel boring machines.

“What Qatar Rail and our contractors in Doha have accomplished in just 26 months of construction time, with the highest standards of performance, safety and quality is an absolutely Olympic achievement in modern infrastructure development,” Herrenknecht added.

Overcoming a crisis

Of course, designing a metro system on such a scale hasn’t been easy. When the project first began, there were almost no rail infrastructure companies or developers present in the Qatari market to contest for contracts.

This forced the state-owned company to search for international partners who often had little experience of building in the country and the wider region.

“The challenge was that – while the international contractors were excellent at building rail networks – they lacked knowledge of local laws and regulations and that could pose a risk to the project,” said Al Subaie. “To overcome this, we asked international contractors to bid through Joint Ventures with local companies who could help them navigate local market issues, laws and regulations.”

“The challenges Qatar Rail faced in 2017 have served as a catalyst for adaptability.”

Construction of the project has also had to contend with the fall-out of a major regional diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its neighbours Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt.

In June 2017, the four Arab countries imposed a land, air and sea blockade on Qatar claiming it supported “terrorism” and was too close to Iran. Doha has denied the charges.

While there are few signs of a resolution to the crisis more than two years on, the blockade has not affected preparations for the World Cup and has not impacted the work of Qatar Rail, according to Al Subaie.

“The unprecedented challenges that Qatar Rail faced in 2017 have served only as a catalyst for adaptability and change,” he told the Gulf Times. “The resilience and the will to succeed in the face of adversity was evident in every aspect of our operations.”

At West Bay rail station, the region’s diplomatic crisis was certainly not on the minds of the Metro’s first happy customers.

“Being able to have this metro…will really transform the transportation system in and around Doha,” Ric Daos, a civil engineer from the Philippines, told Al Jazeera. “It’s especially beneficial for those who don’t have a car to go to work.”