GCC states bring joy to world railways

14 October 2005
It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no money in railways. This helps to explain why there have been so few new rail projects in North America and Western Europe and why the schemes that have gone ahead took longer to build and cost more to operate than the planners imagined.

The poor economics of rail is due to physics. Trains have to be heavy to keep contact with the steel track. The result is that it takes more energy to carry a tonne of freight by rail than the rubber-tyred alternative. Invariably, railway projects are justified by reference to the environment, reducing road congesting, promoting economic development or all three.

The GCC this autumn is poised to overturn the conventional wisdom that rail doesn't pay with a series of projects that will change the face of Arab transport. They will involve investment of up to $20,000 million.

The most eye-catching is the trailblazing Dubai Metro. The original plan called for it to be the world's longest, with a length of about 50 miles. At the MEED Middle East Rail Projects conference at the end of September, delegates heard that perhaps three times this length of rail will eventually be laid. Dubai Municipality is considering an extension to the Dubai Waterfront being developed south of Jebel Ali and an entirely separate high-speed line linking Dubai International Airport with Palm Jebel Ali via Jebel Ali International Airport.

Other plans include a monorail to Palm Jumeirah and extensions to encompass Dubai International Financial Centre, Downtown and Dubai Festival City. A tram line and a bus network are also on the agenda.

From the technology it will use to the way it is being financed, Dubai Metro is a mould-breaker. It could be the new blueprint for light rail projects being considered beyond the Arabian peninsula.

Delegates also heard about plans for a UAE freight rail line to connect Khorfakkan on Sharjah's east coast, Fujairah, Sharjah city, Abu Dhabi city and Ruwais. It could be extended into Qatar to form the majority of the proposed GCC rail link extending from the Shatt al-Arab to the Gulf of Oman. Most exciting is the prospect of a high-speed magnetic elevated rail link connecting Abu Dhabi with other destinations in the UAE.

The biggest rail projects are in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi landbridge, which will connect Jeddah, Riyadh and the Saudi Gulf coast, is at a critical development stage. The first contracts are being awarded for work on the north-south mineral line, which is designed to link the Jordanian border with the phosphate fields of Jalamid, the bauxite reserves at Al-Zabirah and the Riyadh-Dammam rail line. The proposed network also calls for a connection between Dammam and Ras al-Zour via Jubail and a direct link from Al-Zabirah to Ras al-Zour. These huge projects are in addition to plans for the Riyadh light rail network and the western rail link between Medina and Mecca.

Sceptics, of course, will suck their teeth in disbelief. But I am convinced. Most of these projects will go ahead by the end of the decade.

The mishandling of Turkey's longstanding campaign to win admission to the EU is continuing amid fresh disagreements among the union's 25 member states.

The fundamental problem is that the EU suffers from schizophrenia. Is it a free trade area operating behind a common external tariff that is dedicated to the idea of promoting economic welfare among its member states? Or is it an incipient superstate aiming to compete with the US and, in due course, China on the world stage. If it is the former, then there is no reason to deny Turkey membership of the EU or, for that matter, any Mediterranean country that trades heavily with Europe. But if the EU wants to be a superstate, then admitting a nation with a population that is overwhelmingly Muslim and rural is probably a mistake.


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