The $25bn light rail boom

29 September 2009

The opening of the Dubai Metro on 9 September heralds the start of a new era for urban mass transit in the Arabian Peninsula.

In an historic moment for Arabia, the peninsula’s first light railway line opened on 9 September. Dubai Metro has cost almost twice as much as budgeted and only part of the system was completed on schedule. But few Gulf infrastructure projects can match its significance. The era of mass public transport has dawned in the region at last.

Only 10 of the 29 stations along Dubai Metro’s 52 kilometre Red Line are functioning. Initial services stop at the Nakheel Harbour station, about 5km from the line’s southern terminus at Jebel Ali. But the complete route should be operational by the end of February. Its sister 23km long Green Line is still due to open some time in 2010 to create the world’s longest automated, driverless light rail system.

This is just the beginning, and not just for Dubai. MEED estimates more than 500km of light rail and monorail projects are under consideration in the GCC. This is probably the world’s largest urban rail programme and one that will cost at least $25bn to complete.

Age-old problems

The opening of the Dubai Metro coincides with the 150th anniversary of the start of work on the world’s first urban railway system. London’s Metropolitan Line depended on steam engines. But its problems were similar to those confronting the line’s 21st century Gulf counterparts. By the time the need for urban rail is recognised, it is often almost too late.

The Metropolitan Line went underground, a more costly process than staying above ground. For the Dubai Metro, on a tight budget and in a hurry, the solution has been a system that is largely elevated, though one section runs under the creek and the built-up areas to its south.

Like the Metropolitan Line, the Dubai Metro has been more expensive than planned. Dubai government officials say that investment in the Red and Green lines will hit AED28bn ($7.6bn), or almost $150m for each kilometre. The original budget was AED16bn ($4.4bn).

The chairman of the board of Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), Mattar al-Tayer, said on 30 August that the increase in costs was due to four factors. The first was the decision to extend the Green Line by 4.5km from Terminal 2 on the north side of Dubai Inter-national airport to a terminus on Emirates road, the highway linking the northern emirates to Dubai’s border with Abu Dhabi.

This involved adding four stations and a large depot, which were not in the plans upon which the original budget was based. A further 3-4km was added at the opposite end of the Green Line to take it through Jadaf to Dubai Creek. A station was added to the Red Line at the Mall of the Emirates on Sheikh Zayed road, and to the Green Line at Salahuddin. Finally, there were radical and costly revisions to the designs of all the stations.

There have been complaints from sup—pliers about payment delays, but Al-Tayer played down disagreements with some Dubai Metro contractors.

“It is not true that we have any major issue with any of the contractors,” he said, adding that the project is fully supported by the Dubai government and all liabilities will be met. “For people to be influenced to make this change, public transport must first be very convenient,” he explained.

To get passengers to the Metro, 25 bus routes will serve its initial 10 stops. Free parking at the Red Line’s termini at Jebel Ali and -Rashidiya will encourage drivers to leave their cars and go by Metro instead. All stations are enclosed and air-conditioned. Those on the multi-lane Sheikh Zayed road have air-conditioned walkways to the west of the highway.

Filling trains requires low fares. With a Dubai Metro pass, it will cost only AED1.8 ($0.50) to travel up to 3km and no more than AED5.8 ($1.50) for a return for the length of the system, provided no more than AED14 ($5.80) worth of travelling is done in one day. This makes the Dubai Metro among the world’s least expensive public transport options. Price competition, nevertheless, is formidable.

Private bus companies servicing areas north of the creek, where many office workers live, charge AED300 ($81) a month for journeys to Jebel Ali. This works out at about AED14 ($3.80) a day for a trip that is often almost door to door and may be up to twice as fast as the Red Line trains. Road traffic planners say persuading people to use the Metro permanently might require increases in the tolls on Sheikh Zayed road.

Designing an urban rail system that anticipates the changing size and shape of the city it serves is always a challenge. It was particularly intense in Dubai. There are no credible long-term projections for Dubai’s final population. MEED forecast 18 months ago that Dubai city’s population could rise to more than 7 million in 25 years. This was based on the number of residents targeted by masterplanned real estate developments. It is unlikely any will reach the size originally envisaged.

Empty stations

The issue is obvious in the stretch of the Red Line between Nakheel Harbour, where initial services will terminate, and Jebel Ali. The RTA says no passenger demand is foreseen at the three stations south of Nakheel Harbour because many the real estate projects in the areas they serve have been delayed or -cancelled.

Doubts about the size and distribution of Dubai’s population has forced the postponement of planning work on Dubai Metro’s Purple Line, a high-speed underground link between Dubai International airport and the new Al-Maktoum International airport. The uncertainty about passenger numbers was compounded by the failure to secure financial backing from the airports themselves.

The RTA has announced plans to build a multi-stop Blue Line that will mainly follow the route of the Al-Khail road, a highway that runs north-south between Sheikh Zayed road and Emirates road. There is, however, no sign of progress on the project.

The only active Dubai Metro expansion is the 11km Green Line extension across the creek to International City, although Al-Tayer said the project has still not been finalised. Plans for a 16km Red Line extension to the Abu Dhabi border have been postponed. US engineering consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff is working on a detailed study of Dubai’s long-term rail requirements.

The priority now is to make the Red and Green lines work. After initially toying with the idea of using private finance, Dubai opted for public procurement coupled with private management. Britain’s Serco has a 10-year contract to operate and maintain the first two lines.

The introduction of privately contracted service demanded change in the way Dubai’s public transport system was managed. The RTA, which was hived off from the Dubai Municipality earlier this decade, regulates all Dubai’s transport modes and owns the Metro. Despite the potential for conflict between its roles, the RTA is seen as the regional model as investment in light rail takes off. Total separation between ownership and operations is not an approach being taken in the Gulf.

With expectations that further development in Dubai’s urban rail system will be delayed for the foreseeable future, the rail industry’s attention is focusing on Abu Dhabi. The Department of Transport unveiled in February the emirate’s Surface Transport Masterplan (STMP), a strategy blueprint for all land services including heavy rail, urban rail, trams, buses, taxis and roads.

The STMP supports the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 vision which was published in the summer of 2008. It calls for a metro system for the city of Abu Dhabi with a projected length of 130km, almost twice as long as Dubai’s Red and Green lines combined.

The Adapt consortium comprising the US’ Aecom, Parsons Brinckerhof and Deutsche Bahn was reported at the start of September to be leading the running for the 18-month contract to design the system.

A centralised approach to urban rail development is probably impractical in Saudi Arabia, a country that has five cities with more than 1 million residents and is, potentially, the Middle East’s largest urban rail market. The Municipal & Rural Affairs Ministry is building 20km of monorail in three parallel tracks in Mecca.

The project, the kingdom’s first urban rail scheme, is due for completion in time for the 2010 Hajj season. It complements the Haramain railway connecting Mecca, Jeddah and Medina (see feature, page 10).

The Transport Ministry is behind plans for a light rail/tram system in Jeddah. The Arriyadh Development Agency is developing a light rail system in the Saudi capital that is likely to be the second started in the -kingdom. The Finance Ministry is the client for an 11km monorail system, now under bid, within the new Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University near Riyadh.

Doha plans

In Qatar, the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company is leading light rail initiatives. Its subsidiary the Lusail Development Real Estate Company has developed plans for a 33km light rail system that will serve Lusail city and connect it with Doha.

The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a government-backed agency, plans a light rail system within its Education City project west of the capital. There are plans for a network in the West Bay area. They will connect with the Doha light rail system itself. Earlier this year, Qatari Diar signed a memorandum of understanding with Germany’s DB International to bid for a government study into how to integrate the urban rail and tram plans with a proposed national railway system and the GCC railway (see feature, pages 8-9).

How government should structure itself to execute rail projects is a particular challenge in Kuwait. Frustrated by the lack of interest in public transport, the Kuwait Overland Transport Union (Kotu) unveiled a rail plan in 2008 that envisages a metro network in Kuwait City. The government has since assigned responsibility for developing rail projects to Kuwait Municipality. It has commissioned a consortium led by UK consultant Atkins to prepare a national study. This will encompass a possible metro system that is expected to be heavily influenced by the Kotu study.

Bahrain’s Public Works Ministry has commissioned a study into the possibility of -building a 184km light rail, monorail and tram system. This is due to be completed in September 2010. Oman, which is participating in the GCC railway, is the only GCC country to have resisted the urban rail wave. But as traffic congestion grips the sultanate’s cities, it is only a matter of time before it too decides it is time for light rail.

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