The Middle East and North Africa has one of the lowest density rail networks in the world, with just under 34,000 kilometres of track over a land mass of 15 million square km. As a result, most people and goods move around by road, air or sea.

The plans amount to a doubling of the track network to 67,000km and investment of at least $250bn

Over the coming decade, that will change. In almost every country in the region, governments have set out plans to invest significant amounts in rail – expanding their existing track networks, reviving historic routes or, in many cases, building lines for the first time. From high-speed passenger services in North Africa to new freight railways in the Levant and numerous metro and tram lines across the Gulf, rail will start to become a viable option for both goods and people for the first time.

Business opportunities from railway projects

The boom in the construction of railway infrastructure, from consultancy and design services to track, rolling stock and communication systems, will create huge opportunities for local and international businesses.

In all, the plans amount to a doubling of the size of the existing track network to 67,000km and investment of at least $250bn. It is the most significant period of rail building for the region since the 19th and early 20th century, when lines were developed by the then colonial powers, including France, the UK, Italy and the Ottoman Empire.

The most significant investments are being made in the Gulf, which is currently the least well served part of the region in terms of rail, but where government coffers have benefited from high oil prices over recent years.

There is a divide between the oil-rich Mena states and those whose finances have suffered in recent years, which is highlighted by the progress – or lack of – of the region’s rail projects.

Iran currently has the most well developed rail system in the Gulf region, with almost 8,700km of mainline track and 125km of metro lines. Among the six GCC states, only Saudi Arabia has any mainline rail services and Dubai is home to the only metro line.

In total, the Gulf region has just over 10,000km of mainline rail lines, but this will expand by 15,000km if all the proposed schemes go ahead. The urban rail networks, including metro, tram and monorail lines, will also grow from the current 183km to 2,236km.

For governments, the two main motivations for the investments are to improve the logistics infrastructure of their countries as they strive to diversify their economies away from their current reliance on the oil and gas sector, together with a need to make urban transport more efficient in the rapidly growing cities.

The need for improved freight transport is playing a central role in many of the first schemes to move ahead.

In Saudi Arabia, the so-called North-South rail line, which will link mines in the north and centre of the country to the ports and industrial cities of Ras al-Zour and Jubail on the Gulf coast, is close to being completed and the first trains are expected to be running later this month.

Similarly, the company developing the UAE’s planned 1,500km mainline network, Etihad Rail, has announced that the first scheme to move ahead will be the line linking the Shah gas field in Abu Dhabi to Habshan and Ruwais on the coast. It will be used by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) to transport granulated sulphur from Shah and the first trains are due to be moving by early 2013.

The most significant investments are being made in the Gulf, the least well served part of the region in rail terms

The scheme forms part of one of the most ambitious rail projects for the region: to build a rail line the length of the Gulf coast, linking all six GCC states. The initial plan is to develop a route from Kuwait in the north around to Oman in the south, but it could be extended into Yemen in the future.

Passenger services will follow the development of freight lines around the Gulf, both between cities and within them, driven by the increasing urbanisation being seen throughout the area.

Population growth in the Middle East

Across the Middle East and North Africa, the population has risen from 200 million in 1980 to about 415 million today, according to the World Bank. The proportion of people living in cities has risen from 45 per cent to almost 60 per cent over that period. In many GCC countries the figure is even higher – in Kuwait, 98 per cent of people live in urban areas and the figure is 96 per cent in Qatar and 89 per cent in Bahrain.

Ensuring that people and goods can move around the rapidly expanding cities as efficiently as possible has led authorities in many countries to develop metro and tram projects.

In the Gulf, Dubai will be joined by Abu Dhabi, Doha, Jeddah, Kuwait City, Manama and Riyadh in having such rail lines. In addition, the Saudi government is planning a monorail for Medina and Iran is building metro lines in six cities to add to the existing, well-used network in Tehran.

Other parts of the region benefit from more extensive existing rail systems, but they are facing the same pressures as the Gulf countries and, in the majority of cases, are also investing heavily in expanding their mainline and urban networks.

In North Africa, it is the oil-rich countries that are leading the way. Algeria has a plan to build more than 3,000km of new track. Just as significantly, it is also embarking on an extensive modernisation of its existing network, with widespread electrification work and the doubling of many single-track lines.

Prior to the outbreak of civil war, Libya too was investing heavily in rail infrastructure, with a 2,000km-long coastal rail line as well as an 800km route into the interior of the country to iron ore deposits near Sabha. There have also been proposals for Libya to build a line through the Sahara to its southern neighbours Niger and Chad, although no concrete plans have been drawn up to develop these lines to date. Its schemes have been delayed by the change of regime in Libya, but are still likely to remain a priority for the new administration.

Equally, Syria’s plans are likely to have been thrown into disarray. These include laying more than 1,000km of new track and also modernising parts of its existing network of almost 2,500km, at a cost of $1bn by 2020. The first element of the planned Damascus metro, the Green line, was due to be completed by 2016.

Environmental challenges to railways in the Gulf

The technical issues involved in building such rail lines deep into the desert is one that countries across the region are having to grapple with. Contractors have had to develop methods to prevent sand dunes moving across tracks, for example, with the use of fencing and sand traps, but, even so, continual maintenance will be required if the lines are to operate smoothly in the years ahead.

North Africa is also taking the lead in another challenging area of rail development: high-speed rail. Algeria and Libya are both developing lines where trains will be able to travel at speeds of up to 250km an hour (km/h), but Morocco is planning speeds of up to 320km/h for the proposed 1,500km high-speed network between its major cities. The first line is being built between Tangier and Casablanca via Rabat, at a cost of $2.5bn, with the first services due to start in December 2015.

The high cost of developing such lines, in part due to the more advanced signalling and rolling stock required, means that it is only viable where high levels of traffic demand can be guaranteed. To date few countries have unveiled plans in this segment of the rail market, with Saudi Arabia being the only country outside North Africa to push ahead. In its case, it is building a 450km line between Mecca,
Jeddah and Medina, known as the Haramain High-Speed line.

In place of expensive, high-speed lines, other countries in North Africa are concentrating on improving their urban rail infrastructure. Egypt, for example, already has an extensive mainline network and is focusing its efforts on extending the Cairo metro. The existing 66km system caters for some 3.8 million passenger journeys a day on its two lines. A third 40km line is being developed and three more lines will add a further 60km to the network by 2022. Similarly, the tram system in Tunis is being almost doubled in length and several other commuter lines are being developed.

Alongside their investments in mainline routes, Morocco and Algeria are both developing several metro and tram lines. The cities that are set to benefit include Casablanca and Rabat in Morocco, and Algiers, Oran and Constantine in Algeria.

In contrast to North Africa and the Gulf, the countries of the Levant appear more modest in their ambitions. There are no high-speed lines on the drawing board and only two metro networks, in Baghdad and Damascus. Even so, the investments that are planned could make a significant difference to the economies of the region.

For Iraq to realise its rail ambitions, it will need to raise significant amounts of international investment and ensure that the security situation in the country continues to improve. But the demand for freight transport as its economy recovers should ensure that investment will be secured for at least some of the 1,200km of new lines that are planned.

Jordan, meanwhile, is hoping to replace its ageing, narrow-gauge freight lines. Currently, they are almost exclusively used by Aqaba Railway Corporation to move phosphate from the mines at Abiad and Hassa in the centre of the country to Aqaba port on the Red Sea. In its place, Amman is planning to build a new standard gauge network that will run from north to south, with links to neighbouring countries.

Trade boost to the Middle East

It is these plans to revive international lines, in particular, that could boost trade levels – not just between the countries of the Levant, but far beyond. The plans of Syria, Iraq and Jordan to upgrade the rail links between the three countries and with neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Turkey will create a new trade route from the Gulf to Europe, providing an alternative to sea and air transport for goods and people. Improved links between Iraq and Iran will also open up the possibility of traffic between the region and central Asia.

In essence, these plans mean that the vision of the early railway pioneers in the region, to link cities across the Middle East and beyond by rail, should finally be realised. For the first time, it should be possible to travel from Istanbul to Mecca entirely by rail, as the ottoman builders of the Hejaz Railway first proposed in the 19th Century.