These are exciting times for the Gulf’s log-jammed urban commuters. This time next year, if all goes to plan, the Dubai Metro will be dropping commuters off at Burj Dubai and other stations on the Red Line, the first on the emirate’s twin-track rail system.

The Green Line to Dubai International airport is also being developed, and there are plans to add two further lines as well as extensions to the original two.

Dubai’s nascent light rail transit (LRT) scheme is the template for a raft of other urban transport schemes across the GCC.

Saudi Arabia is considering two separate light rail schemes at Mecca and Riyadh, while Abu Dhabi aims to establish its own system, as do Kuwait and Qatar.

The appetite for light rail shows little sign of abating as the expansion of urban populations outstrips the capacity of the region’s road systems to move people around.

For the first time, the region’s planners are starting to think holistically about transport. Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), for example, is basing its transport strategy around the Dubai Metro. The RTA aims to lay 318 kilometres of metro lines and 270km of tramways.

Making savings

In conjunction with bus services and planned marine services, the Dubai Metro aims to raise the public transport usage rate in the emirate to at least 30-35 per cent by 2020, from 7 per cent today.

This should also deliver cost savings for business: the RTA estimates that $1.25bn is lost every year as a result of Dubai’s traffic jams.

The RTA, with operating company Serco, has managed to keep the construction schedule on track.

The 52km Red Line viaduct was completed in August, three years after work commenced.

The line’s 42 driverless trains will carry 27,000 passengers, with train arrivals due at 1.5-minute intervals at peak times and every three minutes off-peak.

Construction of the 20km Green Line from Dubai International airport through Deira and Bur Dubai to Rashidiya is at an advanced state, with completion scheduled for March 2010.

The Dubai Rapid Link (DURL) consortium was awarded the AED4.1bn ($1.1bn) contract for the line’s first phase two years ago.

The Red and Green lines run overground for most of their routes and are based on the U-shaped viaduct design developed by France’s Systra.

The RTA is evaluating bids for the consultancy contract on the planned 11km extension to the Green Line, which will add five stations between Al-Jadaf and International City.

Construction tenders for the 49km Purple Line are expected to be issued by the end of 2008, while the 40km Blue Line is also waiting to be tendered.

Dubai is looking to build more rail routes to serve developments and integrate them into the proposed inter-emirates rail network.

A series of tram networks is also being developed, with contracts to build a tram network serving Dubai Marina and the Al-Sufouh area awarded earlier this year, as well as another network serving the downtown Bur Dubai area.

Private developers are also planning LRT systems in Dubai. Government-owned Nakheel plans to build light rail lines and tramways in the 140-square-kilometre Dubai Waterfront area, linking up with the Dubai Metro.

In October, the Palm Monorail – the first monorail to be built in the region – is due to start ferrying visitors to Palm Jumeirah. It will initially carry up to 2,400 passengers in four separate trains.

Rail networks

Abu Dhabi is also developing its LRT plans. The emirate’s new Department of Transport is due to release a study outlining its options for a light rail network by the end of the year.

Under the emirate’s long-term strategy, known as Abu Dhabi 2030, it will have two metro lines: one linking Saadiyat island via Central Station to the Capital District and Raha Beach; the other stretching east-west, connecting Al-Reem and Al-Suwwah to Central Station and the Marina Mall development.

Riyadh is also looking to increase the use of public transport via an LRT scheme. Studies suggest the volume of vehicular traffic in Riyadh has increased five-fold since 1980, and the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA) is now considering alternative transport modes as it rolls out a massive urban road-building programme for the Saudi capital.

The major King Abdullah road scheme under development in Riyadh will allow for a 10-metre-wide channel in which track can be laid for a planned new railway – further evidence of intermodal transport strategies taking root in the Gulf.

The ADA hopes to increase the city’s uptake of public transport from 2 per cent to 15 per cent.

Road-rail integration is now the watchword. ADA is finalising the concept for its light rail system with two consultants: the local Omrania & Associates and France’s Egis Rail.

The client is expected to make a final decision on the designs by the beginning of 2009, after which tender documents will be prepared.

The project involves a two-track, 25km line running from north to south in Riyadh and a two-track line from King Saudi University in the west to Khalid bin al-Waleed interchange in the east.

The ADA is deliberating on whether to implement the project on a design-build, design-build-operate or design-build-operate-finance basis.

The budget will be substantial, say insiders. “The construction costs are rising in a way that no one can keep pace with,” says one project source.
An urban rail system is also planned in Mecca.

Plans are being developed for a $4bn monorail linking holy sites at Mecca, Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat, with capacity for up to 90,000 passengers an hour.

Developing plans

Kuwait and Qatar are also in line for urban light rail schemes. The Kuwait Overland Transport Union has been mandated to develop a comprehensive rail and light rail plan for Kuwait City.

At the heart of the plan is an ambitious $7bn scheme comprising a 171-kilometre-long inner-city metro project with four lines being built across the city, linked to a planned new rail network on the outskirts of the capital. A 60km stretch of the metro will be built underground.

Under the proposals, special-purpose firms will be set up for each of the four metro lines.

Each company will appoint contractors to build one line on a build-operate-transfer basis – an ambitious aim given the likely costs.

The first phase will involve three 24km lines being built. The client is working to a 2014 completion date for the network.

Equally ambitious are Qatar’s plans for a 140km LRT system in Doha. But Qatar has other designs for its system.

Qatar Public Works Authority (Ashghal) wants the LRT system to bolster its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

According to Ashghal, bids for construction will be made for the first 85km of the system by the end of the year, with the metro’s completion scheduled for 2015.

The lessons of Dubai’s pioneering metro system will be digested by the Gulf states as they attempt to make city living more bearable for the region’s growing urban populations.

The key challenge is likely to be in the operating phase, rather than in construction. Car driving is heavily subsidised (via fuel) and culturally ingrained in the region.

With population centres not so densely concentrated as in many European or Asian cities, the priority is to ensure that access to public transport is readily accessible.

Abu Dhabi, for example, wants to ensure that no one has to walk more than five minutes to access public transport.

Even then, it may be difficult to get Gulf citizens out of their sports utility vehicles and onto the shiny new LRT trains.