A train ride that began at the Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates at 9 minutes and 9 seconds past 9pm on 9 September marks the start of a new era of mass public transport for cities in the Gulf.

Dubai Metro’s 52-kilometre Red Line, the region’s first light railway, opened on schedule but is still incomplete. It cost almost twice as much as expected and there were long delays on its first day of full operation. But these issues are overshadowed by the project’s broader significance. The Gulf’s age of the train has dawned.

All the line’s 29 stations should be operating by summer 2010 and the Metro’s Green Line is scheduled to open by the end of 2010. Plans call for the metro’s first two lines to be extended and for a Purple Line, a high-speed connection between Dubai International airport and Maktoum International airport near the Abu Dhabi border. Work has started on a complementary tram system that will connect metro stations with areas of Jumeirah. They include the Palm Monorail, a 5.5km system owned by Nakheel that runs the length of Palm Jumeirah to the Atlantis Hotel.

Palm Monorail and the Dubai Metro are the first parts of one of the world’s largest urban rail programmes. MEED estimates that up to 500km more is planned in the GCC, costing at least $25bn. Oman is the only GCC state that has not announced at least one light rail scheme. The big new prize is the Abu Dhabi Metro, a project that could be twice the length of Dubai’s Red and Green Lines. A contract is due to be awarded soon to the consortium selected to work on the designs.

Government and business are studying the Dubai Metro. There are already a number of lessons. The first is that it is impossible to procure fixed light rail assets using private finance. Dubai opted for a lump-sum turnkey approach although running the system has been contracted to the UK’s Serco.

The second is rail projects invariably cost more than initially planned. The Red and Green Lines are estimated to have cost about $7,5bn, roughly equivalent to $150m for each kilometre and 80 per cent above original projections.

Dubai is now trying to get people to use the metro regularly. To do this, they have set low fares: it costs AED 6.50 ($1.73) to travel one way along the Red Line’s entire length. Season tickets cut the average daily cost of using the metro by more than half. Bus services connect the 10 stations that are initially operating with other parts of the city.

The most challenging issue was the alignment. Light rail normally links places in an urban centre. Dubai Metro, in contrast, passes through the entire length of Dubai from north to south. This was inspired by the desire to connect Dubai with Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and the need to provide mass public transport to areas in the south of the emirate where big real estate developments were planned.

The credit crunch has killed international property demand and most of Dubai’s private residential projects have stopped. The result is that about 9 kilometres of the Red Line from Nakheel Harbour to Jebel Ali industrial estate serve areas where few people live. It confirms that efficient light rail systems depend on robust and accurate urban plans.

The Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), the Dubai government agency responsible for the metro, is now trying to make the system work. The RTA is now crossing the line that separates the technical challenge of building and operating light rail and into the social challenge of making it serve Dubai’s heterogeneous population.

The first days of operations suggest that Dubai’s residents are giving the metro the benefit of the doubt, but few commuters are yet prepared to use it on a permanent basis. They are keeping their options open. But for Dubai, and the region, there is no going back. The Metro must succeed and, as traffic congestion intensifies in the Gulf’s booming cities, the rest of the GCC has no choice but to follow the path Dubai has taken.