A fast passenger rail network reaching from Muscat to Amman is an achievable vision for the Gulf states according to the head of rail for the global construction giant, Bechtel.
And the core network necessary to realise it is already under construction by the UAE’s Etihad Rail.
“There is no reason why one day you will not be able to catch a train from Oman to Jordan,” said Dr Amjad Bangash, senior vice president of Bechtel Rail. “I fact the type of network you would need to support that service is exactly what Etihad Rail is in the process of delivering.”
Dr Bangash was speaking at the MENA Rail Projects conference which is being held in Abu Dhabi this week to discuss the US$200 billion worth of rail development projects currently underway across the region.
However, making such a line “high speed”, delivering train speeds of over 300 kilometers per hour achieved by the French TGV, or the Japanese Shinkansen networks might not be technically feasible across the desert.
“When you go to 300kph, the tolerances required are very tight,” said Dr Bangash. “And that is where sand becomes a problem.”
Locomotives, carriage bogies and signalling systems would be vulnerable to fine blown sand generated by train speeds. Also the movement of dunes disrupting track beds, and blown sand covering track and creating accelerated erosion were all problems that could undermine such a project’s viability.
However, just because you could not deliver 300kph, did not mean such a service would be slow. Etihad Rail’s projected passenger speeds of 200kph were definitely achievable and equivalent of, say, speeds delivered by inter city expresses on the UK’s rail network.
“200kph is not slow,” added Dr Bangash.
“The other major limiting factor of course, would be volume,” Dr Bangash said. “Would you get the passenger numbers to justify embarking on such a huge project? There is certainly a lot of travel between the GCC countries and it is growing fast. But is it enough today?
“But certainly, the rate of growth in the region’s population and economies will make it so in the near future.”
The Etihad Rail’s Dh40 billion, 1,200 kilometer network is currently under construction in three phases, concentrating initially on freight, with the first commercial service due to start in 2013.
Eventually the network will connect the UAE to Saudi Arabia via Ghweifat in the west and Oman via Al Ain in the east, running freight trains at speeds of up to 120kph carrying sulphur, aggregates, steel, cement and containers, and eventually passenger trains at speeds of up to 200kph.
Stage 1 will connect Shah, Habshan and Ruwais. The 266km route is for transporting sulphur for export and is due to be completed in 2014. Stage 2 will connect Mussafah to the Gulf ports of Khalifa and Jebel Ali Port, and the Saudi and Omani borders, and Stage 3 will extend the network north of Jebel Ali Port junction to the northern Emirates.
The network will be supported by over 300 new construction projects including bridges, tunnels and up to 10 new passenger stations, with the whole contract being completed by 2020. Initially diesel locomotives will be used, with an option to electrify in place.
“The railway will link the principal centres of population and industry of the UAE, as well as to form a vital part of the planned GCC railway network,” said John Lesniewski, Etihad Rail’s commercial director. “Etihad Rail’s state-of-the art network will improve the way people and goods move, opening up new trade corridors and journey opportunities.
“For the future, we are already discussing a high speed line following the coast, capable of cutting journey times between Abu Dhabi and Dubai to 25 to 30 minute. The development of the Etihad Rail network is in line with both the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 and UAE National Charter 2021, but you just have to look to the railways they built in Europe and America in the 19th century to realise what we are doing here is so much more. We are building something that will last for the next 100, 150 years.”