Why are Gulf countries embracing rail?

There are compelling environmental and business cases for investing billions in the region's domestic and international railway networks

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Sep 2 , 2014 : People traveling in Dubai Metro in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For News. Story by Preeti & Martin
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These are exciting times for advocates of railways as a reliable, sustainable and efficient form of transport. The GCC railway project has seen renewed impetus, with all six member states at various levels of progress that could help develop the region’s rail network and move toward its plan to lay 2,000km of tracks within their countries.

This is just one of a string of recent successes for rail travel. The Dubai Metro has been a phenomenal success since its launch in 2009 and is set to expand with the launch of the Blue Line project. Doha Metro opened in time for the World Cup, Riyadh Metro will launch next year and Etihad Rail’s 900km network will extend across the UAE, from the border of Saudi Arabia to the border of Oman.

So what are the factors behind rail’s surge in demand in the Gulf?

The first point to note is that city planners in the region are exploring the use of futuristic technologies, including maglev and even the hyperloop as an alternative to conventional rail. However, the original principle behind the earliest railway systems was that it was an essentially “straightforward” technology that could be built quickly, cheaply and with as few materials as possible, which is not the case with new technologies.

Etihad Rail opens its largest freight station in Ras Al Khaimah

Etihad Rail opens its largest freight station in Ras Al Khaimah

Those principles still make good sense today. In environmental terms, public transport journeys in Dubai have increased from 2 per cent to 14 per cent since the introduction of the Metro, removing countless car journeys from the city’s busy roads. Etihad Rail is reducing CO2 emissions in the UAE road transport sector by 21 per cent per year, by 2050, equivalent to removing 8.2 million tonnes of CO2.

As a business proposition, the rail industry has strong credentials. Its established product line of trams, metros and high-speed rail across the world comes with a ready ecosystem from engineering to project management and operations and maintenance to deliver and run these projects efficiently. Using established technology allows for interoperability between different networks, which is vital as regional networks develop. While we welcome new forms of high-speed transport, the reality is that these, for now, are unlikely to be rolled out as a form of mass transport in the way we see with rail.

In addition, the simple design of rail makes it easier to innovate efficiently and affordably, including with steps like electrification and the use of green hydrogen fuel. A lot of work has been done over the past decade in making the supply chain more environmentally friendly, too, such as reducing the emissions output of cement production. And studies indicate that modular station designs have been shown to reduce environmental impact and improve energy consumption. Furthermore, we can use data analysis to help us plan where to put stations and routes in ways that maximise the number of passengers served and minimise the amount of new land required. All these design and construction tweaks add up to big efficiency savings over time.

The availability and use of data gives us much more information around how people move around their cities, which is vital when planning any infrastructure project. It enables us to play around with various scenarios of where public transport fits into all other patterns of movement, and helps us to think about how rail could be maximised for other uses. For example, could a passenger metro system be used to carry freight at night?

City planners in the region are exploring the use of futuristic technologies, including maglev and even the hyperloop as an alternative to conventional rail

Technologies like “digital twins” have also been useful in modelling on-the-ground scenarios to help address obstacles that are particularly pronounced in the Gulf. One example is the “first and last mile” challenge – the problem of how to get people from their homes to transit stops, and from the transit stops to their end destination. This is a particularly important consideration in the Gulf climate. A digital twin can measure whether the costs and emissions impact of, for instance, constructing an extra pedestrian bridge will be offset by the benefit it provides to people in their journey. And it gives us performance indicators to plan the wider transport model, including buses and walking, which helps us to look at how we ease congestion levels at certain times.

For example, a digital twin approach was very useful in the development of Vancouver’s fully automated Canada Line, part of the city’s rapid transit system. By using drones, train-mounted scanners and remote sensors, critical flaws were identified to create efficiencies in maintenance, and ultimately optimise passenger flow. Such technologies point the way for leveraging efficiencies with the GCC’s rail network.

This will all help the shift to build more liveable, sustainable cities. Dubai’s 2040 Urban Master Plan, launched last year, calls for the development of a “20-minute city”, allowing residents access to 80 per cent of their daily needs and destinations on foot or by bicycle. Such a plan requires well-thought-out public transportation to bring services within reach of where people live and work.

As the region grasps the outcomes of Cop28, there are further incentives to innovate. Two new programmes were agreed upon to accelerate the adoption of “15-minute cities”, along with a call to action to double the share of energy-efficient and fossil-free forms of land transport by 2030. A playbook for nature-positive infrastructure development was also created, spotlighting the construction sector’s role in conserving and restoring natural ecosystems.

Given rail is already much cleaner than road transport, aviation and maritime, our task now is to think about how we manufacture in ways that further reduce our environmental impact. And when we think about electrification or the use of hydrogen, how are these power sources produced? Does a railway project extend into becoming a power project? Some of the latest rolling stock can generate power as the trains accelerate and decelerate, while viaducts, which naturally act as wind tunnels, could house energy turbines. And we can also think about how we can make rail corridors greener and use the space for solar panels.

Seen from this perspective, rail transport in all its various forms still has a vital role to play, as we build a future where many incremental improvements aid the sustainable movement of people, goods and services throughout our cities and nations.

Published: December 28, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: December 30, 2023, 4:50 PM