Crossing the sea of sand

With low-cost airlines soon to take off in the Gulf, could trains be the next big thing?

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By  John Irish Published  July 1, 2003

|~||~||~|Ever thought of crossing the Arabian Penins- ula’s great sand sea by train? In an ambitious US $4 billion project, the Gulf’s travelling public could see an alternative to air transport, after senior Bahraini ministers held talks with project management companies in Manama to look at the possibility of creating a regional rail network.

The project, named Gulf Magno Express, is still under review, with the consultancy firms preparing a proposal for a feasibility study.

Although initial reports indicated that the network would encompass the entire region, the plans will initially connect Dammam, Manama and Doha with a 450km per hour high-speed magnetic train, a journey that could take as little as 22 minutes without stops.

Dr Rudolph Schwarz, chairman of IABG, the consultancy and services firm that deals with the high speed magnetic rail system, confirmed the estimated cost of the project, comprising a single 206km track, stations and other facilities, could reach $4.12 billion.

IABG, which is working in tandem with regional engineering and services firm, Techplan, began looking into the project at the end of 2002.

Speaking to Arabian Business, Fawaz A. Beyhum, director of Techplan, explained that the network was aimed at stimulating economic activity throughout the GCC, while meeting all functionality, safety and environmental standards.

“A rail system is a business on its own. It will really create a lot of satellite businesses around [it]. It regenerates the economy and the movement of products and people. It’s also a question of social integration, which they [the GCC] need.”

He added that in a recent GCC meeting, member states had agreed to the idea of a train system linking the GCC. As a result, the Islamic Development Bank was nominated to fund future feasibility studies.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s Prime Minister, stressed that he considered the project vital for easing transport and movement within the GCC, while also strengthening solidarity between GCC states.

However, despite positive comments from Sheikh Khalifa, Saudi and Qatari authorities remained tight-lipped about the project. Techplan’s Beyhum confirmed that it was up to the Kingdom to discuss the project with its neighbours. In Bahrain itself, Fahmi Al Jowder, Bahrain’s Works and Housing Minister, remained sceptical about the project.

Speaking to the Manama-based Gulf Daily News, he claimed that the plan was still in its infancy, suggesting that cost could be a prohibitive issue. “The Bahrain-Saudi causeway means that half the investment is already there.
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With plans for the Bahrain-Qatar causeway under consideration, someone needs to tell us why the railway would be a better idea than the existing road link between the three countries,” he said.

While Jowder argues that the project will not improve Bahrain’s transport system, Beyhum insisted that towns were getting congested and need to be relieved. “This is the alternative to building more roads and tunnels. This [congestion] will not be solved unless you have mass public transport.”

According to Behyum, a main objective for the project was to eventually include the UAE to help it solve increasing inner city traffic problems.

While the Abu Dhabi government is currently considering a rail network for the city, Beyhum stressed that he was in discussions with Dubai to build a magno system linking the city centre to outer districts such as Jebel Ali.

“We want to connect Dubai to Abu Dhabi with our system, which would take 18 minutes. What is important is that Abu Dhabi doesn’t have a different system, because it would be expensive to co-ordinate the two. We presented our system to them, but as of yet they haven’t determined what technology [they want to use].”

IABG’s Schwarz added that he anticipated working with Bahraini investors to carry out the project as well as establishing a public-private sector joint venture to finance the plans.

One of the benefits of the magnetic train system, according to Beyhum, is that as there are few mechanical parts, wear and tear would be less, meaning that operating costs compared to conventional trains could fall by as much as 50%. He added that 65% of the construction involved laying the tracks, which IABG hoped to contract out to local companies.

As for the system itself, Beyhum, claims that factors hindering old-style trains such as sand drift, heat or humidity would not be an issue for magno trains. The flat terrain in the region, he said, would also reduce costs and avoid the construction of expensive infrastructure such as bridges.

Meanwhile, in a sign that Saudi Arabia is interested in developing a regional train transport system, the Kingdom’s railway organisation announced plans to expand its network. Khaled Al Yayha, president of the Saudi Railway Organisation, confirmed that a three year expansion plan costing about SR8 billion (US $2.1 billion), would begin in the next 18 months.

The last significant train venture in the Gulf was the Ottoman Hijaz railway, which linked Saudi Arabia to the southern Jordanian city of Maan. Although the link between the Hashemite Kingdom and Syria was re-established in 1998, the network to the Gulf has not functioned since World War I.

A decision on the proposal for the magnetic train feasibility plan is expected by the end of September this year. Should there be no objections, Beyhum is hopeful that the system will be up and running in the next few years. “If they have the political will and are ready for it, I would say it could take three years from when the decision is made,” he says.||**||

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