GCC railway on track to offer cheaper travel for all

The only railway line in the GCC is in Saudi Arabia and runs between Dammam and Riyadh, which will form part of the landbridge linking the Gulf and Red Sea coasts. (AFP)

In the coming years, intercity travel in the GCC may no longer involve long hours in airport departure lounges or uncomfortable waits for public buses.

With a new generation of trains with top speeds of 180kph, the commute between Dubai and Muscat could take less than two hours. Residents and citizens of GCC countries will be able to travel by train to neighbouring cities when the GCC railway network becomes a reality in a few years.

But the benefits of rail travel stretch further than moving passengers around the region. A rail network will also scale down the current over-dependency on road and air transport in the region as trains provide a cheaper alternative.

And freight routes throughout the GCC – vital for continued growth – will also be opened up, reducing haulage times for raw materials and consumer goods.

Running much of the length of the Arabian Peninsula's eastern coast, the 1,500km GCC railway is being hailed an important benchmark in the development of the Gulf's passenger and freight network.

At a recent conference, Mohammad bin Obeid Al Mazroie, GCC assistant secretary-general for economic affairs, said the GCC was witnessing remarkable growth and a railway link between the states would reduce risk inherent from the intensive use of roads by private and public transport and trucks.

He also stressed the importance of the security and economic factors in the cost of passenger movement and transportation, citing the success achieved by using railway lines in many countries around the world, due to the great capacity, effectiveness and safety of trains compared to other transportation systems.

"The GCC railway network will complement other major projects such as the GCC grid network, water linkage, and the intelligent ID card project that will facilitate movement among the GCC countries," he said.

The railway will bind together other rail projects at various stages of development throughout the region. In Saudi Arabia, the line will link with the Saudi landbridge at Dammam, and with the North-South minerals railway at Jubail. Kuwait's intended line between the Iraq and Saudi borders will also be integrated into the network.

It will also be linked to the Emirates Railway, an 800km railway network whose construction is expected to begin this year. This passenger and cargo railway is expected to start operating some time in 2013 and it will be part of a comprehensive national strategy to ease traffic congestion, encourage use of public transport and also limit the number of freight trucks on the roads.

"The project will facilitate and integrate transport links among all six GCC member states, leading to economic growth and creating job opportunities at local levels. Long-term benefits of the project would be introducing an environmentally friendly transport mode, supporting local industries, and developing co-operation among the states," said Ramiz Al Assar, senior chief representative at the GCC Secretariat-General and senior transport specialist for the World Bank, at a conference in Dubai last year.

The GCC-wide railway was merely a dream for many years, but now the project is moving forward – fast – with construction expected to begin in 2010 at a tentative cost of $2.5 billion (Dh9bn), to be shared equally among benefiting countries.

The GCC railway network is expected to improve co-operation between GCC countries, socially and economically, and also provide potential for political integration. Improvement in trade and employment opportunities in the region would be a natural fallout of the project. A GCC Transportation Ministers Committee has been charged to oversee all feasibility studies related to the railway network and also come up with recommendations.

The first phase of the line is set to be ready by 2015. Three rail and engineering consultancies – French group Systra, Lebanese consultant Khatib & Alami and Canarail of Canada – began their examination of the project in September last year and delivered their results at the end of the year.

The line under consideration would run from Kuwait to Muscat, with a further branch likely running down to Oman's port city of Salalah.

At a GCC summit in Qatar in December, the six GCC nations sanctioned an extension of the line into Yemen and this is currently under study too. Feasibility reports on the proposed project are likely to be ready between October and December this year.

The GCC network could also be linked to other projects in the Levant and North Africa, since most Arab governments have agreed to use the same gauge specifications when planning their own rail systems in the future.

The success of railway in Saudi Arabia is seen as an example of the potential benefits to the GCC that can be expected from the project. The only GCC railway line exists in Saudi Arabia.

Internal railway networks

GCC countries are already either constructing or in the final stages of initiating their own internal railway networks, some of which would be connected to the GCC railway line.

Kuwait has completed a national railway network study, featuring a 400km north-south link to the airport, ports and Bubiya branches, and this year it will tender the contract for construction of the line. Work on this link is expected to start early next year, and a future expansion of the project through a

117km east-west link is being studied.

Also, feasibility studies for national railway networks have been completed in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar and talks of an expected implementation some time between 2008 and 2009 is in the air.

The Saudi Arabian North-South Railway Project (NSR) is already well under way and should be completed by 2010.

It is being carried out by the Public Investment Fund of the Ministry of Finance, but will only handle freights of phosphate and bauxite from mines at Zubairah and Jalamid to processing plants.
When completed, the rail will make up a single track of 1,800km long.

Another important project taking place in Saudi Arabia is the East-West Railway Project (Landbridge), aiming to provide connections between Jeddah, Dammam, and Jubail.

Two tracks make up this rail, one of 556km that will be used only for freight transport and the other, a 449km line, to handle passengers. Upon completion it will be able to transport some 300 million passenger-km per year and one billion tonnes-km of cargo.

The project passes through four areas that are significant shipment and industrial locations.

It heads from Jeddah, a major trans-shipment hub on the Red Sea, then passes through Dammam, from which shipments can find their way to Iran, Iraq and fellow GCC states.