MENA countries could build region-wide rail link: SNCFI

Middle East countries are interested in building or rehabilitating 25 000 km of rail lines to create an interconnected regional rail network to increase tourism

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By  Rhys Jones Published  September 4, 2004

According to figures from the recently set up Societe National des Chemins de Fer (SNCF) Middle East, countries in the MENA region are interested in building or rehabilitating some 25 000 km of rail lines, out of which SNCF International is already developing 4000 km with further additions expected. But before MENA countries can interconnect their networks, they first have to undertake the difficult task of extending existing lines or constructing brand new ones internally. In Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO) already plans to expand the country’s modest rail network through three major projects. The first one, the East-West Railway, will see new lines added to the existing Dammam-Riyadh route to form a land bridge between Jeddah and Jubail. This will ultimately connect Jeddah with Riyadh through a 950 km line. The second project is the new Western Railway, which will offer services for millions of pilgrims and other passengers on a line to be built from Jeddah to Mecca and Medina, with a branch to Yanbu. The third, the North-South Railway, will link Riyadh with the northern part of the country and will be some 1408 km long. According to the SRO, the Kingdom’s expansion program will cost over $2.5 billion. In the Gulf, plans are currently being studied for a railway system linking the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain that could be in place before 2010. According to a highly placed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) official, a European firm has come up with a plan for the development and the Islamic Bank for Development has been asked to undertake a feasibility study for the project. Some key railway routes are already being mapped out in the countries involved and it is already known that a railway bridge will connect Bahrain with Qatar. Even in Lebanon, where the rail service is out of service, there is interest in building a commercial and passenger line between Tripoli and Abboudye in Syria. Furthermore, other projects are being planned in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Iraq, not only to relieve transport problems but also to enhance trade between Arab states. The implications of a Mideast railway system, which would have a mainly commercial focus, are vast. “It would increase and facilitate trade and tourism, but it would also remove traffic from roads and increase traffic at ports,” said Nizar Al-Ayoubi, general manager, SNCF Middle East. “It would most importantly create a rapprochement between Arab countries,” he added. The cost of financing railway expansion would vary from country to country, since each one will incur the cost of expanding railway networks within their own borders. However, the Mideast Railways Organisation, the body planning the overall network enterprise, will focus the search for a source of finance, whether from a consortium of regional banks or international financial institutions. For example, it is expected that between Amman and the Syrian border, the cost of a line would be US $200 million, while from Damascus to the Turkish border construction of a line would cost around $600 million.

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