Ambitious Gulf states rail link 'unlikely to hit 2018 deadline'

13 December 2015

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A proposed rail link between six Gulf states is likely to considerably overshoot its original 2018 deadline, according to an analyst.

The 2,177km Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rail link is due to connect Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain in the United Arab Emir­ates, and Oman, providing a huge trade boost to the region.

Edward James, director of content and analysis at Meed Projects, said the proposed deadline of 2018 was now “impossible”.

A recent meeting of GCC officials to discuss the project in October 2015 appeared not to be followed by any announcement.

“What people are now waiting for is an announcement of the revised deadline,” said James. “No country has built any dedicated section of the GCC railway yet.”

Oman and UAE are closest to awarding tenders for the project, he said, adding that Qatar is expecting to award its tender in summer 2016.

Until 2009 there was only one railway line in existence in the Gulf region - a relatively small stretch between Riyadh and the Saudi Arabian port of Dammam.
 The low cost of fuel and long straight roads means road transport has hugely dominated the region until now. But traffic congestion in many areas of the Gulf has turned attention to the economic and environmental benefits of rail transport. 
And the success of several large rail projects in the region in recent years has kindled excitement around the prospect of a Gulf-wide rail connection.

“Saudi Arabia has really led the way in terms of railway development in terms of building a 2,000km railway to transport phosphates from mines in the far north of the kingdom to the Gulf coast where it is converted into aluminium and fertilizer,” James said.

Dubai’s successful metro has been another trailblazer for the region, he said. Riyadh is currently building a $20 billion metro of its own.

Passenger trains on the new line are expected to travel at around 220km/h with freight trains operating at 80-120km/h. Sand blowing onto the railway has so far been a major technical challenge.

James added that different GCC countries were using slightly different procurement techniques in the project. Kuwait, for example, is using a public private partnership process while UAE is looking for contractors to help finance the project. These methods reflect the drop in oil prices and showed that members were looking at various methods of financing.

Saudi Arabia said it was planning increase its rail track seven-fold and to build the Arabian peninsula’s first high speed rail services between capital Jeddah and the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

“We have concrete plans to expand our rail network from 3,000 to 22,000 kilometers,” said Awwad Bin Saleh Al-Awwad, Saudi ambassador-designate to Germany.

The Saudi government has named DB International, a subsidiary of Deutsche Bahn, as its preferred partner for the expansion.

“The GCC rail project is one of a kind, ambitious and complex in nature,” said Ramiz Al Assar, resident World Bank advisor for the GCC. “It will link six member states as a regional transport corridor, further integrating with the national railway projects, deepening economic social and political integration.”

Faris Saif Al Mazrouei, acting CEO at Etihad Rail, said: "The market will get an extra sector in which to expand, providing opportunities for both the public and private sector."

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