An Emirati train driver has told of her dream of being at the helm of the UAE's landmark rail passenger service – with President Sheikh Mohamed on board.
Sara Al Mazrouei, 24, is one of four forward-thinking citizens steering Etihad Rail's impressive freight fleet, which is already helping to connect the country's centres of trade and industry.
The first Emirati female train captain is eager to be a driving force behind the nationwide mega project and inspire other women to get on the fast-track to success.
"I feel proud that I've paved the way for other women who desire to explore a unique sector.
"I hope to do my first passenger trip with President Sheikh Mohamed on board."
Both Ms Al Mazrouei and fellow Emirati train driver Ibrahim Al Hammadi, 25, graduated from the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute railways diploma programme.
Ms Al Mazrouei says she relishes the chance to embark on long journeys which allow her to see new parts of the UAE's sprawling landscape.
“I love every part of this job, but this must be my favourite part ... the night trips," Ms Al Mazrouei says of her twilight train rides.
“The train allows me to see areas in the UAE that I would never have seen before and would never have experienced if not for this job.
"I do sometimes feel like a tourist and wonder how, as an Emirati, I never knew these places existed. Going through the farms at night and seeing the animals grazing in the fields is beautiful. You feel like you are all alone in the world, and it is just you and nature.”
Right on track
Etihad Rail announced in February that its vast freight network was fully operational.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, officially opened the freight line in February.
It consists of a fleet of 38 locomotives and more than 1,000 wagons.
A launch date for passenger services is still to be confirmed.
The rail network stretches about 900 kilometres across the country – extending to Oman – and is expected to reduce carbon emissions by up to 21 per cent.
The drivers work in 10-hour shifts depending on the cargo they have to move, with an average working day starting at about 4am.
“I would be up an hour earlier, at around 3am and head to the control room to pick up my bag, which has my protective gear,” says Ms Al Mazrouei.
A typical journey will take her from Mirfa to Shah in the Al Dhafra region of Abu Dhabi.
Before boarding the train, she has to ensure that all security checks have been conducted and the cargo is loaded.
Paving the way for future generations
Mr Al Hammadi, who began driving freight trains in 2020, is eager for other Emiratis to follow in his path and help drive a "groundbreaking national project".
“Without the Adveti programme, I wouldn’t be here today, and if not for support from leadership, none of this would have been possible," he says.
"I do hope to train future generations to be part of Etihad Rail.
"It does give you an immense feeling of national pride to be part of a new and ground-breaking national project.”
Both Mr Al Hammadi and Ms Al Mazrouei hope to drive Etihad Rail's passenger trains when they are up and running.
Exciting times ahead
Adhraa Al Mansoori, director of public policy and sustainability at Etihad Rail, says the huge infrastructure project is in keeping with the UAE leadership's long-term goals to unite the nation.
“This was our founding father’s dream,” says Ms Al Mansoori, referring to UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
“To connect the seven emirates and later connect to the GCC and beyond.
"This vision was supported by our wise leadership, which established Etihad Rail.”
She said Etihad Rail, established in 2009, has made significant progress since becoming operational seven years ago.
Phase one – encompassing freight operations – is complete.
Since 2016, two tracks spanning 264 kilometres have been in operation – with trains transporting granulated sulphur from gas fields in Shah and Habshan to an export point in Ruwais.
The aim is to transport 60 million tonnes of freight goods by 2030, while there is much anticipation for the passenger routes still to come.
“This is the exciting part. Right now we are in the business of moving goods but soon we will be in the business of moving people," she says.
"Luckily we have the infrastructure for the passenger trains already in place. We anticipate connecting eleven cities starting from Al Sila and all the way to Fujairah.
"We anticipate that our passengers will have an amazing experience in terms of comfort and convenience, and we are also tapping into the social aspect of the project where we will be connecting rural or remote cities with the main cities.”
She spoke of another notable achievement, in linking the vast network to Oman, helping to further bolster economic and social ties between the Gulf neighbours.
She says Etihad Rail hopes to welcome tens of millions of passengers on board by 2030.
“We anticipate moving around 36.5 million passengers by 2030. Every train will seat over 400 passengers and will run up to 200kph,”
The economic impact of the network is estimated to be around Dh200 billion over the next 50 years.
“My personal dream is to ride on the train, not only myself but my grandparents, my parents, and the entire family," she says.
"There are a lot of hopes and dreams for the network. Trains are a very simple concept. People love trains, and everybody in the UAE is looking forward to it."
Ms Al Mansoori spoke of her pride at the achievements of Mr Al Hammadi and Ms Al Mazrouei.
“The two Emiratis who are the first captains are truly an inspiration. We are proud of them. These kinds of careers did not exist before in the UAE, so seeing them is an inspiration to a lot of the youth.
“Etihad Rail in itself is a literal representation of the UAE’s union. A project that connects the seven emirates – linking cities, people, business – it embodies the spirit of the union and is the reason why we as Emiratis are so proud of it and look forward to the future ahead."