Thursday 26 September 2013

Winning hearts and minds of GCC public transport users

By Peter Feuilherade
This article was first published in MENA Rail News on 24 September 2013.
In the next decade, the population of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is forecast to soar by 30% to over 50 million people – and more than 85% of them will be living in urban areas, according to the UN. Governments in the region are spending billions of dollars on public transport infrastructure and services, to divert traffic from roads and reduce air and noise pollution.

The total planned investment in railways, metros and trams in the Gulf states over the next 10 years is put at almost $150 billion. In addition to a GCC-wide rail network that aims to connect all six states by 2018, almost $30 billion worth of contracts have been awarded in recent months alone to build metro services in the capitals of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while metro projects are also under way in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Jeddah, Mecca and Medina.

The benefits to the economy – including greater efficiency due to reduced traffic, and significant cuts to travel times – are self-evident.

But as growing populations and increasing prosperity boost car ownership, luring commuters away from private vehicles and taxis and persuading them to switch to public transport is a major challenge.

While in London, for example, public transport is used for about half of all journeys, only about 2% of Riyadh’s six million residents currently use public transport. The figures for Jeddah and Bahrain are 4% and 5% respectively. Dubai, with the most developed public transit network in the GCC, reported 165 million journeys in the first half of 2013, or almost 12% of potential users. By 2030, when construction of Dubai’s 422‑km metro and tram network is completed, the aim is to achieve a user rate of 30%.

Mattar al‑Tayer, head of Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA), said in July 2013 that residents of the emirate and visitors “do grasp the benefits and advantages of using public transport means, including the psychological and physical relief of riders, reducing traffic accidents, cutting expenses on fuel and maintenance of private vehicles, and avoiding the hassles of finding parking space…”

But many factors are still impeding greater take-up of public transport across the GCC, including poor public perceptions, heavy dependence on private cars and taxis, the absence of standard policies and regulations and the lack of private sector capacity to support this rapid development.

With fuel prices in the region among the cheapest in the world, heavily subsidized by governments, this only serves to promote the continued high use of privately-owned vehicles.

Public attitudes towards the curtailment of subsidies remain resistant to change, but the option of raising fuel prices to promote greater use of public transport is beginning to appear on the political agenda. In August 2013, Saudi Arabia's High Commission for the Development of Riyadh mooted raising fuel prices to make more motorists use public transport. "High fuel prices will prompt a considerable number of private car owners to depend on the metro and buses for their commuting," the Saudi newspaper Arab News quoted the commission as saying. Riyadh is also considering imposing fees for car parking to discourage people from using private vehicles.

Another option is road tolls. In 2007, Dubai was the first city in the region to introduce toll systems on some major roads, but surveys have shown that many Dubai residents remain reluctant to use public transport until it becomes considerably cheaper than personal transport.

Qatar, for its part, has ruled out parking fees or congestion charges, saying they are not feasible until people have safe public transport options.

Raising attractiveness

If coercive measures against car use are to be avoided in an oil‑producing region where the public expect low taxes and import duties, the alternative must be to make using public transport more attractive.

A July 2013 report by global consulting firm Booz & Co said the convenience of passengers was paramount, and customers wanted public transportation that was easy to access and use, as well as being pleasant to ride. “To reach a sustainable level of usage, a metro in the GCC should heed lessons from successful systems that have proper feeds from high-frequency bus services and taxis, as well as ‘park and ride’ facilities for car users. Station and vehicle cleanliness and comfort are also critical to attract riders from all socioeconomic classes,” the report added.

Riyadh’s new 177‑km six-line metro network, due for completion in 2019, is described as the world's biggest current investment in public transport. The Riyadh Development Authority has hired some top international architects to design stations intended to be “tranquil oases for travel, shopping and dining”, to place the metro at the heart of life in the Saudi capital. One of the stations, Olaya, will feature elevated public gardens and an undulating roof inspired by desert sand dunes. Ibrahim al-Sultan, the official supervising the project, told Reuters news agency that the metro will "enhance the quality of life" of Riyadh's six million inhabitants.

Riyadh metro to enhance "quality of life"

Some Saudi women see the new metro as offering them greater independence by overcoming the ban on women driving in the Kingdom. The Riyadh metro will include "family class" carriages, intended to give women privacy and peace of mind like the "ladies only" carriages on metros in Dubai and Cairo, among others.

The Dubai Metro, too, plans to extend sections reserved for women and children in carriages during peak hours, after complaints and surveys found that these were often more congested than the rest of the train.

A statement by the RTA in August 2013 said the number of women and children travelling on the Metro had increased noticeably, “thanks primarily to the growth in the public transportation culture among the public from different social cross-sections”.

Constant connectivity is another essential, now that technological achievements mean public transport users worldwide expect to be able to use smartphones and tablets during journeys, as well as receive up to date travel information via smart technologies, on social media as well as display screens in carriages, on platforms and station concourses, shops and restaurants.

Dr Muna Hamdi, founder and leader of Intelligent Mobility: Future Vision (iMFV) and ITS Arab director of research, told MENA Rail News that the first priority for GCC public transport planners should be multi-modal connectivity, providing seamless travel for people and goods between transport networks.

Dr Hamdi also stressed the need for integrated planning and regulation at the GCC level.

“The most important step is to develop a multi-modal GCC regional strategy that takes into account the rapid change in technology (planning flexibility) and economic growth, as well as environmental and cultural aspects of a healthy and prosperous society. The lack of convenient travel options for a considerable time in the Arab region, personal wealth and the availability of fuel have encouraged dependency on personal transport,” she said, adding that “adaptation to the local culture user needs and aspirations” was paramount.

But experts caution that planners in the GCC must be realistic about how many people will use public transport. The Booz & Co report predicts that in the light of the current strong car culture in the region and its far‑flung populations, public transport is unlikely to account for more than 30% of motorized trips in GCC cities.


“Even to reach that figure, treble the current level, transport authorities will have to do more than build public transport systems based on demand and transit-oriented development. They will need a holistic approach based on integrated modes of transportation, customer convenience, reduced private-car use, private-sector involvement, and an integrated planning and regulatory framework,” the Booz report concluded.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Could rail be a viable outlet for South Sudan’s oil exports?

By Peter Feuilherade

This article was first published in MENA Rail News on 13 July 2013
Flag of South Sudan
The latest flare-up between Sudan and its landlocked neighbour South Sudan over cross-border flows of oil via pipelines raises the issue of whether building a railway line to export South Sudan’s oil via Kenya instead could turn out to be a better long-term option.

In June, Sudan threatened to block exports of crude oil from South Sudan via pipelines controlled by the government in Khartoum, following renewed claims that South Sudan was supporting rebels operating across the shared border. The allegations are denied by the government in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, which is the world’s newest nation. When South Sudan gained independence from Khartoum in 2011 after a 22-year civil war, Sudan lost 75 per cent of its oil production overnight, but retained the pipeline infrastructure, as well as the refineries and export terminal at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. This is currently the only way that South Sudan, the most oil‑dependent country in the world, can get its oil to market.

After the row was defused at the end of June, South Sudan shipped its first oil cargo through Sudan to international markets since 2011. But tensions remain between the two countries, and it is very likely that oil exports from South Sudan will be interrupted again.

In late June, the presidents of Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda agreed to build two pipelines across East Africa, one of which would run from South Sudan to Lamu port in northern Kenya. While this would give the Juba authorities a pipeline to the south, advocates of building a rail link to export South Sudan’s oil believe they have a strong case.

“Flexible, open-ended, expandable”

In 2012, two US academics and Sudanese specialists set out the case for building a railway line to connect South Sudanese oil fields to the Kenyan coast. But so far the proposal has not attracted interest either from the government in Juba or the international rail construction industry.

The railway project, if adopted, could put the new country on a path for resolving a host of pressing political and economic problems in a single blow, says Sharon Hutchinson, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. It could also represent an enormous business opportunity for international railway companies, she told MENA Rail News in an interview. 

Her vision is of a flexible, open-ended and expandable railway system that could begin with a route that would link South Sudan to Kenya (and Uganda) and then gradually expand, as income from oil export revenues and supplementary railway revenue streams grew, to encompass the entire country and become a force for economic growth throughout the extended region.  

She believes that a railway line could be built in stages that could gradually expand outwards from an initial cut to the coast in order to progressively link up with more and more regional urban hubs, such as Nairobi and Kampala and, later, perhaps, Dar es Salaam and Addis Ababa. “Even more importantly, it could serve as a force of political and economic growth and unification by gradually interconnecting diverse domestic administrative centres and regions,” Hutchinson added, noting that there is already a rail line extending from Khartoum to Wau in South Sudan, which could be tied in and expanded as a more effective route northwards. 

Train travelling towards Wau
Recalling how railway construction during the colonial era had stimulated rapid economic development and growth in many African countries in the past, she said that “unlike a single purpose oil pipeline, a railway line would be able to create multiple revenue streams for both the state and people of South Sudan for generations to come.  It would enable South Sudan to create an increasingly diversified import and export economy.”

But Hutchinson warned that if government officials in South Sudan do not give the railway proposal more serious consideration at this stage, they may find it very difficult to "catch up" with neighbouring states later on, once the latter have taken the economic lead. 

Eric Reeves, a Sudan researcher and analyst at Smith College, Massachusetts, also believes South Sudanese officials have not taken the railway option seriously enough. He told MENA Rail News: “The real issue is the lack of a leadership which has to date failed to assess this key transportation decision in a realistic way.  The oil pipeline can carry more oil, but will take longer to build and is one‑way - it is useless for imports.”

In reply to arguments that South Sudan critically needs maximum oil revenues now, which an existing pipeline can provide, Reeves counters: “Even if a rail line monetizes the oil reserves more slowly, that's probably a good thing.  Too much money came in too fast to escape the blight of corruption.  And when the oil runs out, the pipeline will be useless - not so a rail line.”

In a February 2013 briefing paper entitled "Railway: A Better Option than Pipeline for South Sudan”, Samuel Nyuon Akoi Nyuon, an engineering student at Cornell University, pointed out that given its current economic predicament, South Sudan cannot afford to build roads, railways and a pipeline at the same time. “It must choose what to acquire first in order to stimulate the growth of her nascent economy. Looking at the three options, railway offers the best opportunity for restarting oil exports and stimulating long‑term economic growth,” he argued.

There is already a separate plan, the LAPSSET (Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia) project, a $25 billion venture that envisages linking the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu to South Sudan and Ethiopia by building thousands of miles of roads, railways and oil pipeline over a time-scale of 17 years. Officials in Kenya, the driving force behind the project, are pinning their hopes on the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the African Union, as well as Chinese investment, to provide the finance. But funding for this ambitious mega-project is not assured.