Transport and logistics in Iraq

19 March 2013

Political strife is slowing progress on Iraq’s transport ambitions

Ministry of Transport

Minister Hadi al-Ameri

Responsibility for transport infrastructure in Iraq falls to two government entities: the Transport Ministry and the Construction & Housing Ministry. Port, railway and airport infrastructure is the responsibility of the Transport Ministry; and the Construction & Housing Ministry is in charge of the road system. This is one of the first challenges for Iraq. The creation of an integrated transport infrastructure relies on coordination between two ministries, which would be a difficult task even without the added complication of varying political allegiances between the heads of different parts of both organisations.

However, the Construction & Housing Ministry recognises that improvements to the road network should fit in with a national transport strategy. In February 2012, it tendered a consultancy contract for a transport sector masterplan. The award for this was delayed, but the World Bank has confirmed that Lebanon’s Dar al-Handasah has been selected as the project consultant. However, no contracts have been signed so far.

Long-term strategy

Transport experts say the creation of a long-term strategy is critical for the country, which to date has been focused on short-term emergency repair and rehabilitation of existing infrastructure. The new study is expected to cover all transport sectors over a 20-year period, and includes a list of priorities for the next five years. Should this study be completed, it will represent a huge step forwards for Iraq. However, successful delivery involves the coordination of a range of government departments both within the Transport Ministry and the Construction & Housing Ministry.

The Transport Ministry has 13 divisions in charge of various aspects of the transport network, including the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority, the General Company for Ports of Iraq (GCPI), Iraqi Republic Railways (IRR) and the Department of Planning and Follow-up.

Although the long-term strategy was yet to be determined, Baghdad has outlined general objectives. Its ultimate ambition is to offer an alternative transport corridor for logistics and trade from the East into Europe. Most ships currently sail around the Arabian Peninsula and through the Suez Canal. Iraq wants to offer a world-class port at Faw on the country’s southern tip, which will be connected to a regional rail network. Grand Faw Port is the biggest priority for the GCPI and involves the construction of a 17-metre deep port, allowing the world’s largest vessels to dock, and 7,000 metres of quayside.

Iraq wants to offer a world-class port at Faw, which will be connected to a regional rail network

From Faw, the plan is to move cargo via a rail link to the improved north-south railway, which will eventually extend into Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and Iran, as well as along the existing line to Turkey. All new lines will be double-track to allow both passenger and freight travel. On the current network, passengers and freight compete along slow and congested lines. As a result, most travellers and cargo haulage firms choose to drive, making a journey from Basra to Baghdad in five hours instead of up to 14 hours by train.

The new rail network also includes plans for passenger-only lines, including a 663-kilometre connection between Baghdad and Umm Qasr running south through Karbala, Najaf and Basra. French rail company Alstom signed a memorandum of understanding with the government to study this option in July 2011. According to IRR, the project is still in the preliminary design stage.

Connecting the railway to the country’s ports and airports is an important part of ensuring a new rail network will be successful. To this end, IRR is already designing a 101km link between Basra and Faw, extending the existing track from Baghdad. This double-track line will have the capacity to carry 70 million tonnes of cargo and 1 million passengers a year. An existing connection from Umm Qasr port to Basra will also be upgraded.

No one in Iraq expects progress on major transport projects to accelerate until after the 2014 elections

A proposed Baghdad loop railway, circumnavigating the city and linking to the airport, is another potential scheme that could be key to an integrated transport system. This would also link to the proposed Baghdad metro. The $3bn project to build 40km of light rail in two lines is being designed by French firm Systra, which is also preparing the tender documents. Although the government, through Baghdad Municipality, will use its own budget to finance the scheme, sources say it could seek a private operator to run and maintain the network.

Aviation projects

Another area where private involvement is much sought after is aviation. Iraq is keen to capitalise on the international trend to privatise airport operations and wants private investment to play a role in its many planned airport schemes. However, the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority is well aware that it may have to finance projects itself until the political environment and security situation improve.

According to a study by French engineering consultancy Aeroports de Paris Ingenierie (ADPI), which is in charge of planning Iraq’s airports, the country could host as many as 14.7 million passengers a year by 2020, compared with 1.7 million in 2010. To achieve this, new capacity is required at the six international airports of Baghdad, Erbil, Najaf, Basra, Mosul and Suleimaniyah.

Furthermore, the Iraq Civil Aviation Authority is pushing the construction of two new international airports at Dohuk and Karbala (the Mid-Euphrates airport), allowing the country to better serve the influx of millions of religious tourists. At Dohuk in the north, South Korea’s Incheon Airports was awarded the $9m, three-year contract to manage the construction of a new airport in February 2013. This builds on its experience since 2009 of managing Erbil airport, which has seen passenger numbers rise from 400,000 to more than a million in the past four years.  

Further south, ADPI is currently completing the masterplan for Baghdad, which is expected to seek funding to double its capacity to 15 million passengers a year. The airport currently handles traffic through three terminals (Samara, Babel and Nineveh) with a capacity of 2.5 million and is also home to the national carrier, Iraqi Airways.

Given the many major investments Iraq has planned for its transport sector, it is not surprising data from regional projects tracker MEED Projects shows contract awards in the country are set to soar in the coming years. During 2010, MEED Projects estimates that $596m of awards were made, compared with a potential award programme worth more than $1bn in 2013 and $4bn in 2014.

According to the country’s five-year national development plan, the Transport Ministry has a budget of $9bn to spend between 2010 and 2014. However, this has not yet found its way into building new infrastructure.

Slow progress

To date, investment has centred on the repair of railways, ports and airports. Even then, many of the deals awarded have been delayed and firms report that achieving sign-off on design and tender awards is a slow process. One of the reasons for this is that the ministry faces a huge challenge when it comes to retaining technical expertise. Many professionals currently working in Iraq’s transport bodies have had limited exposure to major projects and need training and professional support. International experts are loath to spend time in the south of the country due to the security risks and the ministry does not have the ability to pay huge salaries to ensure top engineers stay to train staff.

In addition, existing information on the condition of infrastructure is sparse and unreliable. Even when schemes get to site, contractors are often forced to carry out projects outside the scope of works. Furthermore, the contracts used for infrastructure work are said to heavily favour the government. International firms complain that these deals contain confusing clauses that lead to contractual arguments as projects progress.

To make matters worse, information is not readily shared between ministries and government departments. Officials at the top levels of the country’s ministries support different political parties and are therefore pitted against each other in matters far removed from transport planning. For this reason, no one in Iraq expects progress on major transport projects to accelerate until after the main elections in 2014.

General Company for Ports of Iraq (GCPI)

Grand Faw port project manager Asaad Rashid

GCPI is responsible for Iraq’s ports. It has recently been making progress on upgrading existing infrastructure and is also in the process of tendering a second breakwater contract for Grand Faw Port, its most important scheme.

The first $269m western breakwater deal was awarded to Geneva-registered Archirodon Construction in mid-2012. Construction of the 8-kilometre rubble structure was due to begin in December 2012, but it is unclear whether work has started. The prequalification process for a second contract for the 13.8km eastern breakwater structure began in February 2013.

Beyond the new Faw port, GCPI plans to double the number of docks at Iraq’s four existing commercial ports by 2014, increase capacity from 15.9 million tonnes to 29 million tonnes, modernise all port facilities, dredge shipping lanes and remove sunken vessels. The most progress on these objectives has been made in Basra Port, also known as Maqal, where GCPI signed a $14m deal with North America Western Asia Holdings to modernise logistical capacity. It will also dredge the Shatt al-Arab channel to 9 metres, increasing the size of vessels that can access the port.

Iraqi Republic Railways

Director of planning Hilal al-Quraishi

The origins of Iraqi Republic Railways (IRR) (also known as the General Company for Railways) date back to the handover of the rail system to the Iraqi government from the British in 1936. The inherited system consisted of lines from Baghdad to Basra in the south and Dijeyl and Kirkuk in the north. These were extended and upgraded in the following decades, reaching the Turkish border in the far north and as far west as Akshat.

Today, the once pioneering system is outdated, with low operating speeds and poor passenger and cargo uptake. To rectify this, IRR has begun a $3bn dual-track upgrade project along the entire north-south line, which will see the 1,144-kilometre route double in capacity and bring design speeds up to 120km an hour. Currently, trains on the older sections in the north can only travel at 40-70km an hour. According to IRR, the expansion is 45 per cent constructed and is scheduled for completion at the end of 2014. In total, IRR plans to invest $60bn in Iraq’s rail network.

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