Nestled in the quiet coastal town of Mirfa, a village west of Abu Dhabi city, you will find the heart of the UAE’s first railway megaproject.
Located a few kilometres inland in a large open expanse, two train tracks, which span 264 kilometres, skim the beige sands of the desert.
Each day, two imposing freight trains leave the depot at Etihad Rail to transport granulated sulphur from gasfields in Shah and Habshan to an export point in Ruwais.
To date, more than 30 million tonnes of raw materials have travelled along the tracks.
Developed in two stages, stage one of the impressive rail network has been fully operational since 2016.
When fully complete, it will stretch approximately 1,200km across the country, from Ghuweifat in Abu Dhabi to Fujairah, and will carry both passengers and freight.
“The depot in Mirfa serves as the centre of operations that maintains and services all movement between the trains and track,” said Jafar Oklah, infrastructure director at Etihad Rail DB, the operations and maintenance provider for the first stage.
“It is the centre of the railway network and serves as a critical function to what we do," he said.
“We have seven locomotives in operation and 240 wagons that serve our main client, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
“Two trains run each day and can transport up to 22,000 tonnes of sulphur.”
Any one train can take up to 110 wagons, can travel at speeds of 120 kilometres an hour and, at full length, can reach about 1.2km.
One freight train replaces 300 lorries
In the second stage, the network will expand by 605km and connect the Emirates via Abu Dhabi, Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi, Khalifa Port, Jebel Ali Port, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah.
Although passenger operations have not yet commenced, the railway network has already contributed greatly to reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the UAE.
One fully laden freight train trip on the current track can replace approximately 300 lorries on the road.
And a fully loaded train produces up to 80 per cent less CO2 emissions than lorries transporting the same tonnage.
Based on traffic volume forecasts, the Etihad Rail network will reduce greenhouse gases by more than 2.2 million tonnes annually once fully operational – the equivalent of taking up to 375,000 vehicles off the roads.
More than 100 staff, many of whom work at the depot in Mirfa, help run the daily operations of the network.
A fully operational control room on site allows controllers to track the movement of trains from departure to arrival.
And technicians housed near the track ensure the multi-million dollar freight trains are maintained to the highest standards.
Full steam ahead for young Emiratis
At just 23, Khalifa Al Hammadi has managed to break into an industry that few Emiratis his age have.
In September, he was among the first batch of students to walk away with a diploma specialising in railways through a programme launched by Etihad Rail.
Now working full-time as a train controller, he has branched out from the other men in his family, the majority of which work in the Armed Forces.
"I feel very proud to be one of the first Emiratis to gain this diploma because I get to contribute towards the expansion of the UAE's first rail network," he told The National.
“I’m also the first member of my family to break into this sector so it is an important step for me.
“I just graduated in September but I had a lot of practical experience in the final year of my course so I have built a lot of discipline and confidence in my job.”
Working in the control room at Etihad Rail’s facility in Mirfa, he is part of a team that supervises freight train movement across the network.
“I work 12-hour shifts, four days on and four days off,” he said.
“We can track the train throughout its whole journey and I have regular communication with the train driver.
“I’m responsible for handover of service, giving permission to drivers to pass through different points and making sure the train leaves and arrives as per the timetable.”
This year, 10 students graduated from the programme which was launched in 2017.
In partnership with the Abu Dhabi Vocational Education and Training Institute (Adveti), they went through two years of theoretical training and one year of practical training.
All 10, including train captain Ibrahim Al Hammadi, now occupy a number of technical positions within the network from traffic controllers to locomotive and railway maintenance technicians.
“I was the only person from my cohort who chose to be a train captain,” 22-year-old Al Hammadi said.
“I joined the course straight from high school because I was passionate about being part of the expanding transport industry in my country.
“My role requires a high level of concentration and I am responsible for checking the fuel levels before departure, the pressure of brakes system and I also have to ensure a reliable and punctual service.”
All interaction between train operators and control room staff is carried out in English, the standardised system for communication.
In 2019, another 12 Emirati students joined the diploma and will graduate in 2022. Once complete, they will be employed by Etihad Rail.