Region poised for railway boom

The Middle East will become the world’s fastest-growing railway region, experts predict, thanks to big projects in the UAE and wider GCC.

The four-day Mena Rail 2009 conference in Dubai this week has drawn strong interest from international companies and consultants, organisers say. With Gulf states embarking on rail projects to ease road congestion and carry freight efficiently and cost-effectively, Symon Rubens, managing director, Middle East, for Terrapinn, the conference’s organiser, said delegates were coming from Europe, Asia and Australia, drawn by the chance to win contracts for billion-dollar projects.

“This year there are general announcements and massive projects,” he said. “There are tenders out and there is a lot of business to be won. There is a global spotlight on the Middle East rail projects.”

Thanks to proposals such as Abu Dhabi’s metro and tram networks, the Middle East is expected to be “the fastest-growing region for the mass transit business in the world”, according to Michael Clausecker, director general of the Association of the European Rail Industry.

A survey by the association and the strategy consultants Roland Berger predicted 2.7 per cent annual growth for rail projects in the Middle East and North Africa. The mass transit sector was expected to grow at a rate of about seven per cent annually, he said.

Among the region’s most exciting projects is the GCC-wide rail network, which is expected to be operational by 2016, with each GCC state completing its portion of track.

The UAE’s section, expected to stretch 900km from Fujairah to the Saudi border, is overseen by a federal railway corporation which will also own, hire, purchase and operate rolling stock.

A feasibility study has been completed and the corporation is expected to complete a detailed design before putting out a tender for construction.

Oman is also conducting a feasibility study for a national railway.

In Dubai, the Palm Monorail was opened recently and the metro will open in September when the first passengers ride the initial stage, the Red Line. Similarly, the first phase of the Al Sufouh tramway will connect it with Dubai Marina and both Media and Internet Cities when complete in 2011.

In Saudi Arabia three rail projects – the Saudi Landbridge linking Riyadh and Jeddah, the North-South railway and a high-speed line linking Mecca to Medina – are estimated to cost US$25 billion (Dh91.8bn). The kingdom also has struck a deal to build a monorail that will carry pilgrims to key holy sites during the haj.

“Real mega-cities are developing in that region at a very fast pace,” Mr Clausecker said. “What is really good news about that is those that develop the cities are clearly thinking strategically.

“They are thinking today about how to preserve a certain quality of living in those cities and not to make them the victim of motorised traffic.”

Countries that had invested heavily in high-speed rail had reaped social and economic benefits, Mr Clausecker said. In Spain, for instance, the social benefit of its investment was “cohesion of a country with very different cultural regions”.

Other speakers will discuss how to secure funding during a recession, while Jean-Marc Janaillac, president of the authority responsible for public transport in Paris, will be part of a round-table discussion on how to get people out of cars and on to trains once the rail projects are complete.

The conference at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City, runs from tomorrow to Thursday.

mchung@thenational.ae

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