In a bid to enhance both quality of life and economic productivity, the GCC countries are pulling out all the stops to make their rail and road network world class.
When the first phase of the Dubai Metro got the green signal in 2009, it was a turning point for the infrastructure and construction industry in the Middle East. With a record of almost 100 per cent paved roads according to a 2011 Markaz (Kuwait Financial Centre) report, the launch of a state-of-the-art metro was truly a milestone for Dubai. The huge success of the Red Line led to the opening of Green Line in 2010. Now, the other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are following suit. Speaking about the investments in this field, accordingly to a recently published report, the GCC is to invest $121.3 billion in improving its land transportation infrastructure.
Roadways past and present
Given the high density of vehicular traffic, attributed to increase in population and propensity to buy vehicles, the focus of development had been on roads. Saudi Arabia is the highest shareholder of road development, followed by Oman, in terms of area. The report cites 291,313 km as the aggregate length of roads available in the GCC countries.
As the basic infrastructure in the roads sector is already in place in the GCC countries, current and upcoming projects are focusing on alleviating problems related to traffic congestion. There are plans to add elevated levels to ease cross-Emirate traffic congestion in Dubai. Similarly, other options such as tunnels and trams are in the offing.
According to MEED, although Saudi Arabia has fewer investments in current road projects to the tune of $2.9 billion, it is likely to command a bigger share in the future owing to increase in infrastructure and real-estate development. Bahrain, too, has a limited share in current roadways projects, predominant being its participation in the Bahrain-Qatar Causeway. Other road projects underway include the construction of the Batinah Expressway in Oman, Obhur Bridge in Jeddah, and King Abdul Aziz Road in Saudi Arabia Speaking to the media in the wake of the Gulf Traffic 2014 Exhibition (held from December 8-10, 2014), Richard Pavitt, Exhibition Director, reportedly said, ´An increase in traffic is generally followed by an increase in accident rates. With more vehicles on the roads, it is becoming increasingly difficult to decrease fatality statistics and to keep the main regional cities moving freely. This is one of the biggest challenges faced by the Middle Eastern governance.´
´With the Dubai Metro recently celebrating five years in operation, new bus and tram services, water taxi services, more metro lines planned and the pan-GCC Railway, public transportation has taken huge steps forward and this looks set to continue. Expo 2020 in Dubai, the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the organic growth in the Middle East, has meant a continued reliance on cheap mass-transit systems.´ What Pavitt has described in a nutshell is actually the dawn of Smart Transport revolution in GCC countries. Be it investments, planning, sourcing or executing, the GCC countries are all set to live the dream of smart Transport.
Taking a cue from the successful running of the Dubai Metro, other GCC countries have followed suit with metro projects underway. But, overall, there are no established rail networks in most of these countries and transport is via road or air. Rail transport is still largely in its nascent stage and continues to hold huge potential.
The reason why rail transport has become the cynosure of all eyes in the Middle East is the urgent need to ease strain on the roadways. With increasing traffic and density of vehicles, rail transport provides an alternative to locals and tourists alike. Metros are the face of new-age rail transport and are hailed for their speed, efficiency, safety and eco-friendliness. Among the GCC countries, Qatar and UAE are on the forefront of rail development. UAE boasts the Abu Dhabi metro, the second phase of the Etihad Rail scheme and extension of the Dubai metro. Apart from the metros, there are other projects involving long-distance passenger and freight trains.
The GCC countries have announced Gulf Railway, an ambitious railway network project connecting Arab GCC member states of the Persian Gulf. Gulf Railway is supposed to be a 1940-km regional network, and is likely to be operational by 2017. The seven GCC countries will share the costs in proportion to the length of the main line in each country. The seven countries include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Iraq. As part of the GCC rail network, two passenger and cargo train lines will connect all GCC countries with Qatar via a bridge and run through Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman respectively. While the Emirates Railway Project envisages a freight and passenger railway network connecting the seven Emirates with Saudi Arabia and Oman, the Qatar National Rail Scheme will include metro systems, long-distance trains and freight transport. The reasons for the development of railways, metros and freight carriers are not far to speak. ´Rail transport can handle bigger cargo volumes at one time, making it an advantageous investment,´ explains Mudit Sharma, General Manager, AFCONS. ´Similarly, metro can handle passenger traffic. Both rail and metro will reduce pressure on road transport and thus reduce the number of accidents. UAE is the first of the GCC countries to have metro as well as railways. The railways in the UAE are specially being used to transport sulphur, a major by-product for oil and gas exploration, thus enabling savings in costs of road transportation or transferring molten sulphur. Further, considering the climatic conditions, the railways need limited maintenance compared to road infrastructure. As the population of the GCC countries is increasing, governments are getting more serious about saving on fuel. The railways will enable this in the long run.´
Apart from rail and road transport, the GCC countries are also planning infrastructural developments to link their major ports and stations.
Trams are, by far, the most popular option. The Jeddah Light Rail System has been planned to not only serve the local population, but ease the heavy traffic load during Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. And the Bahrain Rapid Transport Network will encompass trams, monorail and bus services. Another important development is the opening of the Al Sufouh Tram Service connecting the Red Line and two metro stations to ease traffic congestion around Sufouh and JBR area. The tram line will be supported by four air-conditioned foot bridges. In fact, the construction of bridges, tunnels and causeways is underway to supplement major constructions and aid commuters and alleviate traffic congestion.
Given the scale of construction projects in the Middle East, it comes as no surprise that these ventures are heavily dependent on technology. ´These projects are being implemented with the latest technologies as the majority of the construction contracts are with multinational companies that have the required exposure and expertise in the field,´ says Sharma. ´In addition, the programme managers are consultants of the likes of Bechtel, Parsons, Atkins, Halcrow and Aurecon (now CH2M), who bring with them excellent pedigree for managing technologically challenging projects and handling mega projects with great capability.´
Coping with challenges
Projects of such magnitude do not come without their own set of problems. Cancellations and delays in their execution is evidence enough to comprehend the troubles the contractors often face to translate blueprints into actual development. Throwing more light on this, Sharma says, ´One major problem these countries will face is the quality of manpower, both white and blue collar. The visa system in some countries is not equipped to support timely and effective mobilisation. Moreover, reinforcement and structural steel is not a problem for the time being as other parts of the world are under economic slowdown, but can be a concern in the near future. Construction aggregates can also be a problem as some of the countries, like Qatar and Kuwait, are either ill-equipped with the infrastructure to produce aggregates to required volumes or do not have adequate natural resources and are dependent on either the UAE or Saudi Arabia.´
Elaborating upon the materials that will play a crucial role in the execution of these projects, Sharma adds, ´Cement, reinforcement, structural steel, bitumen and crushed aggregates will be required for these projects. And equipment needed will include tunnel boring machines, track laying machines for railway and metros, road paving and earthwork equipment for roadwork and cranes and piling equipment for structures. Formwork will also be a major investment.´
Nevertheless, the GCC is geared up for every challenge, eager to transform its transportation network to enhance both quality of life and economic productivity. The journey has begun.
Road Movement in 2014