It is difficult for a project to stand out in Dubai. Audacity is the norm when it comes to new projects in the emirate and 2015 sees no exceptions.

The Investment Corporation of Dubai is working on two architectural icons – an expansion of the Atlantis resort on the Palm Jumeirah, and the One Zabeel tower at World Trade Centre – while the local Meraas is planning to start building the oddly-shaped Museum of the Future.

Justifying Guinness World Records’ decision to open an office in Dubai last year, biggest, highests and firsts are also on the agenda. Dubai Multi Commodities Centre has approached contractors for the world’s tallest commercial tower, and design work is progressing on Dubai Holding’s Mall of the World, which when completed will be the world’s largest shopping mall. 

It is therefore somewhat surprising that the project that has generated the most interest from construction companies and consultancies this year has been a scheme that when first viewed appears rather insignificant: the 15-kilometre extension to the Red Line of the Dubai Metro.

Size no issue

The project is dwarfed by other metro schemes in the region. Riyadh awarded $22bn-worth of contracts to build six lines totalling 176km in length in 2013. In Qatar, contractors won various construction packages totalling more than $20bn for the first phase of the Doha Metro in 2013 and 2014. It will have four lines totalling 194km.

Despite its small size, Dubai’s 15km of metro line has received widespread interest. This is primarily because it will serve the Expo 2020 site, making it the largest single piece of infrastructure the emirate has to deliver for the event.

The Expo connection was reinforced in April, when Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, approved the project, which was renamed Route 2020. This gives the rail link a marketing boost, but also makes the project more attractive to potential bidders for three key reasons.

The first, and perhaps most important factor, is that the Expo gives the project a fixed deadline. This is particularly important when contrasted with the lack of progress on the UAE’s other metro network, which is planned for Abu Dhabi. After an industry briefing in 2013, attendees have heard nothing on when the scheme will be tendered. “There is a real sense that the Dubai Metro extension will go ahead,” says a European contractor. “It has to. The Expo is happening in 2020. That date cannot change.”

Funding sources

The second factor is funding. In October 2014, Dubai said infrastructure investment for the Expo is expected to cost between $6.2bn and $8.7bn, and will be funded using a series of unspecified mechanisms and portfolios using private sector and contractor finance. Despite the uncertainty of how the scheme will be funded, there is an assumption in the market that, if needed, the project could be funded directly by the government.

Key fact

Route 2020 is the largest single piece of infrastructure the emirate has to deliver for the Expo

Source: MEED

The third factor is design and technology. In keeping with the Expo’s theme, “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”, the link is expected to use cutting-edge technology that will give firms working on the project a high-profile reference project they can use to secure work on future schemes around the world. To make an impression, the Expo metro stations will be designed to stand out. Dubai has developed landmark stations before. For the existing Red and Green lines, the interchange stations at Union and Burjuman have iconic designs, and the stations next to the Creek in Bur Dubai and Deira echo the architecture of the city’s heritage areas.

These three factors meant that when Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) held an industry briefing for Route 2020 on 7 May, it was attended by firms not only from Dubai, but from around the world. At the meeting, the RTA outlined what the project requires and what its delivery schedule will be. 

The scheme involves building a 15km line branching off the existing Red Line at the Nakheel Harbour & Tower station, between the Ibn Battuta and Jumeirah Lake Towers stations. About 11km of the line will be elevated, with five elevated stations and two underground stations.

Design work on the scheme began in July 2014, when the RTA awarded a joint venture of the US’ Parsons International and France’s Systra the contract to complete the preliminary engineering.

Several routes were considered. The cheapest and easiest option to deliver would have been a continuation of the Red Line beyond the existing Jebel Ali terminus and inland to the Expo site. However, this solution would have meant longer journey times to the Expo, and would not have provided the opportunity to build new stations for existing centres of population and industry such as Discovery Gardens and Dubai Investment Park.

The winning bidder for the delivery of the line will have to deliver civil works including detailed design, architecture, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) works, together with earthworks, viaducts, bored tunnel, and stations; railway systems; and supply rolling stock – which, crucially, will have to be able to run on other existing lines of the metro network.

Financing unnecessary

For scheduling, prospective bidders were invited to submit prequalification documents. The deadline set at the meeting was 31 May, which was later shifted to 15 June to give prospective bidders more time to form their consortiums. Once prequalification documents have been submitted, the RTA plans to form a shortlist of bidders, which will be announced on 30 June. The contract will be tendered on 2 July, with a closing date of 6 December. An award is planned for 28 January 2016.

The RTA says financing proposals are not mandatory but will be considered for the contract to design and build Route 2020. The transport agency has awarded contracts with financing options in recent years.

The most high-profile is the estimated AED680m ($185m) contract awarded to Turkey’s Gunal in October 2013 for the contract to build a road bridge and canal as part of the first phase of the AED1.5bn-AED 2.5bn extension of Dubai Creek. Subsequent deals were not let with financing.

Forming consortiums

The companies that have been invited to prequalify for Route 2020 include systems, rolling stock and construction companies, which will be expected to form multi-discipline consortiums.

Civil construction and systems integration will be the most important factors when the RTA evaluates the capabilities of consortiums, with each accounting for 25 out of the total 100 points on offer. Rolling stock will account for 20 points, and system supply and financing capabilities will account for 15 points each.

Major European, Far Eastern and local firms are forming consortiums for the design-and-build contract.

The market expects Japan’s Mitsubishi to be the dominant bidder when prices are submitted in December. Having built and delivered the rolling stock for the existing metro network, the firm has a distinct advantage over other suppliers that will have to take on the additional cost of engineering compatible trains.

“This is the big question,” says a manufacturer. “The costs are huge. Just moving the doors to match Dubai’s platforms involves re-engineering the whole train.”

The enticement for manufacturers could be future involvement on other metro projects that the RTA is planning. Other extensions include a link connecting to the Dubai Parks & Resorts development in the Jebel Ali area close to the Abu Dhabi border; an extension of the existing Green Line, which will be 20.6km-long with 11 new stations running from Jadaf to Dubai International Academic City; and a Red Line extension that will be 3.5km-long and will run from Rashidiya to Mirdif City Centre. 

The Parsons/Systra team is the consultant for both the Red and Green line extensions. In 2014, these schemes were due to be completed in time for the Expo 2020, although it is now expected that the target completion dates may be moved as the RTA focuses on Route 2020.

It is understood that discussions have been held by the transport agency and Dubai Parks & Resorts for the theme park rail link.

Other lines

Another line still in the very early planning stages will run from Al-Ghubaiba station in the Bur Dubai area, through the Satwa area, connect to the existing Red Line at the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall station and continue on to Nad al-Sheba and the Meydan area. A major transport hub will be located at the Meydan area, which will include the Dubai station on the Etihad Railway network.

The question bidders looking to position themselves for these future expansion projects should ask themselves is: can Dubai move ahead with these new schemes as quickly as it has with Route 2020 without a definite Expo date in the calendar?

Dubai Metro in numbers

Average daily ridership in 2014: 450,000

Source: RTA