How Etihad Rail's freight service aims to cut travel times for UAE motorists

Gottfried Eymer, the new chief executive of the freight network, says it will bring social, environmental and economic benefits

Etihad Rail's freight service will carry everything from shipping containers to petrochemicals. Photo: Etihad Rail.
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Commuters will benefit from Etihad Rail’s freight network as huge numbers of lorries are taken off the UAE's roads, making them safer, a top executive has said.

Gottfried Eymer, the new chief executive of the Etihad Rail freight network, said the shift of so many heavy goods vehicles from roads to the railway would also reduce travel times for motorists.

Speaking to The National at the Middle East Rail conference on Monday, Mr Eymer said the freight network would bring big social and environmental benefits as well as economic advantages.

Instead of 300 trucks, you have one train driver
Gottfried Eymer, Etihad Rail freight network chief executive

“The benefit for people will be very good and positive,” said Mr Eymer, a freight rail industry veteran from Germany. “Instead of 300 lorries, you have one train driver. Instead of people waiting in traffic jams, we are moving lorries to railway. As we are providing those services on a different network, we are delivering the streets for daily road transport.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Eymer also talked about what he wants to achieve as chief executive, how freight will transform the UAE, and how he was stunned by the scale and ambition of the project.

Etihad Rail’s first freight line opened in Abu Dhabi in 2016, transporting sulphur from gasfields to Ruwais port. UAE-wide freight services were formally launched in February.

According to Mr Eymer, trains are now running across the network and the operations include testing the system to make sure everything is in order. About 20 million tonnes are expected to be transported across the UAE this year with a target of 60 million tonnes by 2030, as trains carry everything from shipping container units to petrochemicals, to construction materials from quarries in the Northern Emirates.

“The main priority is [getting] started this year,” said Mr Eymer. “Then to build up route traffic.”

Freight trains will travel at speeds of up to 120 kph, connecting the seven emirates, four major ports and other key logistics centres across the country. The network consists of a fleet of 38 locomotives and more than 1,000 wagons. Important for the UAE will be the easy transport of raw materials from quarries in the Northern Emirates to Abu Dhabi where major construction projects are taking place. “[It is also] connecting four important harbours: Fujairah; Ruwais; Khalifa Port and Jebel Ali. The four main hubs in this country are connected now with rail,” he added.

Mr Eymer said this means container units shipped through the ports can be easily transported by rail to other transport hubs in the country and then loaded on to lorries to their final destination. As well as each train removing 300 lorries from the roads, it is envisaged the network will boost the country’s drive for net-zero emissions by 2050. Etihad Rail aims to remove 8.2 million tonnes of C02 emissions annually from the road transport sector, which is a reduction of 21 per cent a year by 2050.

Mr Eymer, who previously worked for German rail operator Deutsche Bahn, remains largely tight-lipped about any future plans, including moves to establish a GCC-wide network, and said he is concentrating on his role in the UAE. But it is clear that he is impressed with the scale and ambition of the Etihad Rail project.

“It is incredible. It is stunning,” he said. “I spent a lot of years in Europe and to see how fast they have done this … with this accuracy, this respect for budget, respect for timeline, and still have a network that is extremely modern, with state-of-the-art safety systems … it is stunning and I’m really surprised how well they have done it.”

Mr Eymer said investment in infrastructure and logistics will also drive growth in industry, trade and retail. “There is a fantastic connection to main harbours. Companies will come here.”

Etihad Rail was first launched in 2009 and just 14 years later the UAE-wide freight network is complete, with a passenger service to follow. It is clear Mr Eymer is excited about the challenges and he paid tribute to the team.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “When you come from Europe … you work hard to change 5 per cent of things. Here you really do something which is starting from scratch and it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Where do you have that in the world? Very few places. It is fantastic.”

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Updated: June 13, 2023, 6:34 AM