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Race starts for the Doha Metro

Bids will be called in the spring of 2012 for the first major project in the Qatar Integrated Rail Project. It will mark the start of one of the greatest construction races the world has ever seen

It is a rare moment to be in a room where more than a single client presents $10bn-worth of potential construction contracts.

But that is what happened at the MEED Middle East Tunnelling 2011 Conference in Doha this week. Qatar Railways Company (QRail) told delegates that more than 80 have so far expressed interest in the Doha Metro first phase and are reckoned to have the capacity to reach the required standard. Some time in the second quarter of 2012, bids will be invited for the first of the 15 contracts it entails.

The scale of what is required is awesome. Phase 1 involves delivering the Red Line and much of the Green Line. The smallest contract will be worth about $700m; the biggest, up to $1.5bn.

The prizes are glittering, but winning will demand skills never before mobilised in the Middle East and rarely used anywhere else on earth. 

The first challenge is creating effective teams from the companies that make up each consortium. QRail wants the best. That will mean diverting top skills to work in Qatar.

The second is the technical complexity. Phase 1 includes 49 kilometres of twin-tunnel railway, most of it to driven under the city of Doha through friable sedimentary rock that will mainly lie below sea level. Getting this done means dealing with water as well as sand, rock and mud. What lies beneath the ground is only partly known. There could be huge cavities and methane dissolved in water. Winning consortiums will have to minimise disruption to normal life in Doha and connect effectively with road projects being simultaneously executed by Qatar’s Public Works Authority (Ashghal).

Then, there is the schedule. To get phase 1 completed by the 2020 deadline will regularly demand working 24-hours a day. And as seasoned tunnelling experts know, you only have one chance with sub-surface projects. Mistakes are almost impossible to correct when you are as much as 50 metres below ground.

So it is difficult to tell who has more to worry about: the client, who has a timeline that cannot budge; or the companies preparing to work on projects with risks that cannot be measured. Yet, there were no faint hearts in Doha this week. Martin Knights, Halcrow’s veteran global and discipline tunnelling leader, confidently declared there is enough time for the job to be properly prepared and completed on time. Practically no one disagreed. Possible blockages in Doha’s ports were cited more than time as the most likely source of problems.

Engineering through history has had an epic quality no other peaceful discipline can match. You can make more money in finance and law and there is more fun in entertainment and the arts. Journalism delivers the occasional thrill, but there is no greater test of courage than having a giant and complex construction project to deliver on budget and on time.

The clock is ticking in the race to build the Doha metro, but fear is the main opponent. May fortune favour those brave enough to try to beat it.