Monday, 8 April 2013

Lines in the sand: Middle East rail projects on track


By Peter Feuilherade

The Middle East and North Africa is emerging as one of the fastest growing rail markets in the world. Major railway projects planned or under construction in the region during this decade are currently valued at around $160 billion. The growth of rail is seen as a major step in transforming economic development and trade by cutting freight delivery times and reducing road congestion.

 Also published in MENA Rail News

Planned rail projects in GCC (Source: Reuters)

This article was first published in The Middle East magazine, April 2013.

Until recently the region had one of the lowest density rail networks in the world, with most passengers and freight moving around by road, air or sea. In the century since sections of the Turkish-built Hejaz Railway from Damascus to Medina were damaged during World War I, railway development in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf has been overlooked because cheap fuel prices ensured that cars and trucks remained the favoured mode of transport for passengers and freight.

Only now is MENA emerging as one of the fastest growing rail markets in the world. The growth of rail is seen as a major step in transforming economic development and trade by cutting freight delivery times and reducing road congestion.

The highest growth rates are predicted in the GCC countries, which have ambitious plans to connect individual networks that they are currently building into a pan-Gulf railway grid which would link to the rest of the Middle East and ultimately via Turkey to Europe, and also potentially to Central Asia.

Qatari railways chief Saad Al Muhannadi said at the Middle East Rail conference in Dubai in February 2013 that an integrated rail link between the Gulf and Europe could be ready within five years, “but this will depend on the decisions made by heads of state and economic conditions in the countries involved” – and presumably also on the outcome of the conflict in Syria, with its rail links to the north with Turkey. A GCC Railways Authority may also be created by 2014 to coordinate the individual national projects.

The region’s major economies have each earmarked dozens of billions of dollars for infrastructure projects ranging from major mainline ventures in Iran ($34 billion), Saudi Arabia (over $30 billion) and the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar ($13 to 14 billion each) to more modest national projects. High-speed passenger rail services are planned in Morocco and Iran. Egypt, the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, among others, are also pressing on with metro/light rail projects aimed at delivering efficient public transport that can help ease traffic congestion and air pollution in urban areas.

The sector offers a wealth of opportunities for international engineering, construction, rolling stock and communication companies and consultancies across much of the MENA region.

Main projects

Large-scale rail projects across the MENA region are expected to add another 35,000 km of network in the next five years. According to Dr Amjad Bangash, head of rail for the global construction giant Bechtel, the region's mainline rail network is set to almost double in size over the coming decades, while metro, tram and monorail track lengths will increase tenfold.

Saudi Arabia has three major projects under way. The North-South Railway, a passenger and freight rail line from the capital Riyadh in the north-west to Al Haditha near the border with Jordan, is reported to be the world’s largest railway construction project under development today.

Another key project is the $7 billion Saudi Land Bridge, running from Dammam to Jeddah via Riyadh. This will be the first rail link between the Red Sea and the Gulf, and will cut the time taken to transfer containers between the two ports to 18 hours, compared with a sea voyage of between five to seven days. The project is reported to be going ahead despite a decade of delays and financial issues over privatization.

The Haramain high-speed rail link running for 450 km between Mecca and Medina is Saudi Arabia’s most important passenger transport project. When completed, it is expected to carry 10 million pilgrims and visitors between the holy sites each year. Projects are also under way to build light rail/metro systems to ease congestion in heavily populated cities including Riyadh, Mecca and Jeddah.

The UAE, the second-largest economy in the GCC after Saudi Arabia, triggered the regional rail revolution with its Dubai Metro project, whose first line opened in 2009. Dubai Metro, the Middle East's first driverless metro system, carried 367 million passengers in 2012. The UAE’s focus is now on Etihad Rail, a 1,200-km network which will be expanded in three phases across the seven emirates, with completion expected in 2018. Eventually the network will form part of a regional GCC railway grid, connecting the UAE to Saudi Arabia via Ghweifat in the west and Oman via Al Ain in the east, with freight trains running at up to 120 kph and passenger trains at speeds of up to 200 kph.

Dubai Metro (Photo:

Qatar, meanwhile, as part of expanding its infrastructure to host the Football World Cup in 2022, has committed to building a $35 billion national network comprising a four-line metro system, a light rail system and heavy rail lines for freight and passengers. The first phase of the new Doha Metro system is set to be commissioned by 2019 and will comprise 60% of the total network – 151 km and 48 stations. Qatari railways chief Saad Al Muhannadi estimates rail-related project returns for investors in Qatar over the next 20 years at about $38 billion.

Oman’s planned national rail network is set to receive a major share of the sultanate’s 2013 funding boost for public transport. A $15 billion system comprising over 1,000 km of dual track is proposed to connect industrial production centres in Sohar, Duqm and Salalah and carry large volumes of bulky cargo, especially minerals. There are also plans to build a metro system in the capital, Muscat.

Iraq’s rail network, opened almost 100 years ago, is now widely run-down after decades of disrepair, war and invasion, although several lines are still in use from Baghdad to Mosul, Samarra and Fallujah, among others. Upgrading the network and restoring other lines are priorities in the government’s reconstruction efforts, although specific funding on a large scale has yet to be committed.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Iran says it is adding 11,000 km to its railway network and plans to launch express freight services on the Tehran-Mashhad route. Jordan, however, bucked the trend for expansion by deciding in November 2012 to halt any new land acquisition for the National Railway Project until the country’s financial situation became clearer.

There are several large rail projects under way in North Africa too, although the sums involved are more modest than in the GCC. Morocco’s Casablanca-Tangier high-speed rail link is going ahead at an estimated cost of around $3 billion. Algeria is planning to spend $600 million on fast rail services. And several metro and tram systems are planned in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Casablanca's new 31-km tram system launched in December 2012 and the Algiers metro, which finally opened in 2011 after over 20 years of construction delays, has three extensions in progress.

Morocco's Casablanca-Tangier TGV (Photo: Global Arab Network)

Egypt, beset by a spate of railway accidents that claimed dozens of lives, pledged at the start of 2013 to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrading the inadequate rail infrastructure to stop more disasters. Other plans include a new electric railway system from Alexandria to Cairo and a line from Beni Suef to Asyut, both funded by the World Bank, and a new metro extension in Cairo with a loan from the EU and France.


High-speed rail services will reduce journey times substantially. The Jeddah-Riyadh link is expected to slash passengers’ journeys to six hours instead of the current 10 to 12 hours by bus. But freight markets are the key drivers for the development of Middle East rail networks, especially in the GCC countries. According to Bechtel’s Amjad Bangash, studies have shown that trains carry freight with nearly 10 times the energy efficiency of trucks.

“Rail freight is particularly attractive across long distances… Centuries ago, the Silk Route connected trade routes into an extensive transcontinental network. In the same spirit, the development of the GCC network could have a transformational effect on international trade and commerce in the region,” he believes.

Graeme Overall, business development director of Etihad Rail, maintains that in addition to economic growth and diversification, which are “the key drivers for building a national freight network in the UAE,” moving bulk freight by train will benefit the environment by reducing the energy-intensive high impact use of road transport, while alleviating congestion will improve road safety.


Building MENA rail networks involves numerous challenges, many of them specific to the region’s climatic conditions and environment. Geoff Leffek, regional rail director at Hyder Consulting, in an interview with the Dubai-based Construction Week website, listed the biggest issues as “sand and dust, particularly build-up on rails; patronage forecasting, as ridership forecasting is challenging in places with little or no existing public transport; energy demand, because power requirements have not always been tied up with utility providers; and climatic conditions such as temperature extremes, humidity, harsh sunlight, etc…”

Building lines that would allow train speeds of over 300 kph, achieved by the French TGV or the Japanese “bullet train”, might not be technically feasible in the desert where the movement of sand dunes can disrupt track beds. Engineers from Etihad Rail have looked for solutions from China, which has used plants that can turn sand dunes to clay over 20 to 30 years, and Saudi Arabia, which has sand-sucking locomotives that push sand particles away from the engine.

Persuading people to travel by train in a region where rail transport has been seen as down-market and unappealing may also be an issue. Colin Best, editor of the MENA Rail News business website, told The Middle East that each country has different reasons for developing its rail infrastructure, whether to relieve major road congestion in capitals such as Riyadh and Doha, to cater for professionals in new residential areas such as Lusail in Qatar, or to transport pilgrims to and from Mecca, “where the influx of visitors is substantial and the number of buses required has started to become a logistical nightmare”.

And while public-private partnerships are increasingly helping to fund the huge costs of GCC rail projects, the credit crunch and its consequences have diminished the willingness of banks to finance long-term projects. Not all the rail projects proposed may be able to amass the expected level of private funding.

Other essentials to building a seamless GCC-wide regional rail network include developing individual country networks according to uniform standards and specifications, ensuring interoperability and streamlining and harmonizing customs procedures.

As David Lupton, transport economist and a former project manager of the GCC rail feasibility study, told Reuters news agency in October 2012, “a key challenge is ensuring that the railways being built do actually connect… I get the impression that national priorities may dominate.”