Rail has entered the Middle East’s projects market in a dramatic way over the past five years, transforming the transport options for a region where passenger and freight movement has largely been determined by road, air or ship, rather than rolling stock.

The speed with which Gulf governments have pushed rail projects to the front of the agenda has defied critics’ expectations. From urban metro schemes through to ambitious cross-border ventures such as the 2,100-kilometre GCC railway, transport is being revolutionised.

New authority

The coming years will be critical as regional authorities seek to realise their rail ambitions. Governments have tended to take a narrow, nationally focused approach to financing, planning and constructing their networks – at least as far as the major GCC rail project goes. Now, plans are being finalised for the creation of a new authority charged with overseeing the development of the GCC rail network at a supranational level.

That could have a hugely positive impact on the development of this colossal megaproject. But it should not be ignored that many of the region’s newest rail-based schemes will still be overseen at national level.

Egyptian network
Total length of network   9,570km
Quadruple lines 20km
Double lines 1,466km
Single line 3,667km
Stations 705
Source: Egyptian National Railways

As Mike Shears, a UK government official, told a London rail sector briefing in late March, the GCC railway has been developed in silos, with each country busy building its own internal network, and a lack of cross-border cooperation. The proposed GCC rail regulation board, which will establish common standards for interoperability, should go a long way to remedying this situation.

The proliferation of metro projects, fanning out from Dubai’s successful experiment in urban rail, is dominating contract awards. The next few years will see some of these schemes materialising.

Saudi Arabia has moved aggressively to give its various metro schemes headway in Riyadh, Jeddah and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Medina Metro finally won approval as part of a wider public transport masterplan in 2014, and will comprise 95km of track that will attempt to relieve the troublesome congestion that has affected the pilgrimage season.

Plans are being finalised for the creation of a new authority charged with overseeing the GCC rail network

Medina Metro Development Authority awarded France’s Egis and Systra 12-month contracts in March 2015 to carry out feasibility studies and preliminary design for the three-line network. The companies will prepare tender documents for the design and build contracts of the planned Green, Blue and Red lines, for completion in 2020. 

Mecca’s own metro is being built to deal with the ever-rising volume of religious tourists, as part of the wider Mecca Public Transport Programme. In October 2014, the Development Commission of Mecca and Medina received bids from contracting consortiums for two civil building packages that will include the construction of 46km of track and 22 stations. 

Planned Saudi rail network 
Total length of railway 2,750km
Number of bridges 148
Bridges over valleys 17
Number of culverts 2,900 (approximate) 
Earthwork quantities 509 million cubic metres
Desert earthworks 0.915 million cubic metres/km
Concrete sleepers More than 5 million units
Source: Saudi Arabian Railways

Jeddah, the largest Western Province city, is also preparing its own metro system as part of a SR45bn ($12bn) transport plan that takes in ferry, bus and cycle networks. The UK’s Foster+Partners has been awarded an $80m contract for the design of all metro stations. The client, Metro Jeddah Company, plans to tender the main construction packages next year.

The metro planned for the capital Riyadh – a six-line, 176km network – is due for completion by 2019, with construction well under way.

Saudi Arabia is also thinking strategically about long-distance rail. In March, Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO) awarded Germany’s Dornier Consulting a contract to provide consultancy services for an update of the Saudi Railways masterplan. The aim is to provide an integrated and clear future vision for a safer, better and bigger railway network, consistent with the country’s national transport strategy.

Delays faced

SRO is also overseeing the Haramain High-Speed Rail Network, which has faced a series of delays. There is a chance that the local/Spanish-led Al-Shoula consortium working on phase 2 of the project may see it withdrawn if progress does not speed up. Calls have been made for an emergency plan to boost manpower and materials to accelerate the project, which was first announced in 2009 and is intended to link up the main Western Province cities. Spanning 450km, it is funded by the state-owned Public Investment Fund.

The reports of delays may reflect a wider concern in the region, given the myriad rail schemes on Gulf governments’ books.

Middle Eastern cities transport demand
Year GDP per capita ($) Daily trips per inhabitant Urban population (million) Urban daily passengers (million)
2008 22,700 1.5 83 120
2013 26,100 1.6 92 150
2025 43,400 1.9 117 225
Compound annual growth rate (%) 3.9 2.3 2.1 3.8
Source: Booz & Co

The next year could see contract awards on one of the region’s most ambitious rail projects, the 958km Saudi Landbridge, connecting Jeddah and Riyadh. Initial design work has been undertaken and construction contracts are due to be tendered in late 2015 or early 2016 by Saudi Railways Company (SAR), once the prequalifying consortiums have been decided. The civil and track work will be divided into a series of packages. 

The next phases of the North-South Railway should also see progress, after a UK-based consortium was awarded a contract early in 2015 to provide management and technical support for the development of passenger and freight services on the line, which will stretch 2,400km between Jalamid and the port city of Ras al-Khair. 

Like its neighbour, Qatar is focused on its metro scheme, the Doha Metro, and the first phase of the four-line network is due for completion by October 2019. Most construction contracts have already been awarded, but more awards are forthcoming.

The separate Lusail light rail transit project, a four-line tram network, is under construction after a contract was awarded last year to a consortium of French railway systems partner Alstom and the QDVC joint venture of Qatari Diar and France’s Vinci Construction Grands Projets. It will open between 2018 and 2020, and will serve a new city under development 23km north of the capital.

Delays and staggered timetables are likely, particularly in the latter stages of this decade

Qatar is also working on a long-distance passenger and freight rail network. Qatar Railways Company launched a prequalification process for the civil works on the first phase in February 2015 and foresees a five-month tendering period from mid-2015, ahead of a mid-2016 contract. Full commercial service is due to start by the end of 2018.

Route 2020

In the UAE, project activity has been heavily focused around the Dubai Metro extension, Route 2020, which will extend to the Expo 2020 site. Route 2020 involves building a 15km line branching off the existing Red Line at the Nakheel Harbour & Tower station.

Funding for the project has been allocated by the government, and Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) says financing proposals are not mandatory but will be considered for the contract to design and build the new link. Bidding groups were being formed ahead of the 31 May deadline to submit prequalification documents. Interest appears high, with more than 100 firms attending a briefing with the project client on 7 May.

The RTA is also planning other extensions to the metro, including a link connecting to the Dubai Parks & Resorts development in the Jebel Ali area, as well as an extension of the existing Green Line, running from Jadaf to Dubai International Academic City; and a Red Line extension from Rashidiya to Mirdif City Centre.

Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE authorities are also thinking in more joined-up terms. Etihad Rail, the entity behind the federal railway, and the RTA have signed a cooperation agreement for securing railway alignments, station locations and all operational responsibilities.

Funding for rail projects in Kuwait has been transferred to the country’s new public-private partnership unit, the Kuwait Authority for Partnership Projects, which is responsible for tendering the Kuwait City metropolitan rapid transport scheme and the national railway.

The original development plan for the Kuwait Metro (K-Metro) is in five phases up to 2035, with the total intended length of the link reaching 170km. Consultants have been invited to prequalify for two contracts covering the project management and preliminary design of the K-Metro. The ministry is also planning a two-phase, 511km national railway network for a 2018 completion. It will connect to the GCC network at the border with Saudi Arabia.

Oman is soliciting an international operator to form a long-term partnership to run and maintain its planned 2,135km network. Oman Rail invited contractors in May to prequalify for contracts on the second and fourth segments of the $15bn national railway, laying the line connecting Buraimi with Duqm and Salalah, for a 1 July deadline. Eleven consortiums submitted commercial bids in March 2015 for the major construction contracts for the first segment between Sohar and Buraimi.

In Bahrain, the government is using GCC funds to support rail projects. Manama is preparing to invite bids in June 2015 for the detailed design of an 87km rail link to Saudi Arabia, as part of the proposed GCC rail network. It is also considering a light rail network, with 22km of elevated double track.

Egypt is likewise preparing for a busy period of project activity on its rail and metro schemes. A consortium of Canadian Bombardier and local contractors has been selected to build a $1.5bn monorail in Cairo. Stretching 52km, it will include 17 stations and connect Cairo, Giza and 6 October City. Construction will get under way in January 2016.

French funding

Financing is being made available by the French government, in line with recent funding for the Cairo Metro. In December 2014, Cairo signed a $428.7m agreement with France to fund the purchase of 64 metro trains.

Egypt has also tapped World Bank assistance as part of a renewed focus on safety. In April, it struck an agreement with China Railway Construction Corporation for the rehabilitation of railway lines in the greater Cairo area, reported to be worth about $600m.

Such deals underscore regional governments’ commitment to pushing ahead with large-scale transport projects, even in a low oil price environment. The likes of Egypt, Oman and Bahrain are able to tap donor and concessionary forms of financing for their projects, while countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have no problems funding these schemes from their balance sheets.

The biggest challenge is capacity. Rail projects, both urban and national, are herculean construction efforts that will absorb much of the region’s contracting and technical capacity. Delays and staggered timetables are likely, particularly in the latter stages of this decade.

But for now, consultants, contractors and clients are pressing ahead in the knowledge that there is strong impetus and financing behind them, and a broader strategic drive to realise the region’s rail ambitions.