Villagers hitch their hopes to the Union Railway

In the first of a three-part series, Western Region residents, from a young mother missing her friends to a grocer seeking fresher produce, tell how their lives will be changed by the 1,500km rail link across all seven emirates, and beyond.

Al Ain-April 30, 2008- A view of some red sand dunes as you arrive in Al Ain April 30, 2008.   (Andre Forget / The National) *** Local Caption *** na01 al ain2.jpg

Early next year the first tracks will be laid on the colossal Union Railway project, set to create a 1,500km link across the UAE from Saudia Arabia to Oman. The project will take eight years to complete and will pass through each of the nation's seven emirates. Today, The National begins a three-day series examining the impact of the project on the wide-open west, the industrial heartland and the lorry-ridden north.

MADINAT ZAYED // In the early 1900s, the Bedouin tribes of Arabia had a name for the Hejaz railway that ran from Damascus to Medina.

They called it the "iron donkey".

With the first tracks of the nation-wide Union Railway due to be laid across the wild desert of the Western Region early next year, residents are growing increasingly excited about their own, modern-day version.

It will help them to feel closer to their compatriots in the rest of the country, it will mean the produce in their markets is fresher, it will create jobs and even engender tailor-made college courses.

Fatima al Mazrouie, a 26-year-old mother of two who lives in Madinat Zayed, is more than ready for that first train to pull in.

"I go with my family on trains in Europe all the time, as they are comfortable and have a great view," she said. "It will be great to discover and travel my own country in a train, where I can travel with my family to Ras al Khaimah or Fujairah over the weekend, and visit friends there, without worrying about the long drive."

Ahmed Ahmed, 35, from Pakistan, moved to Madinat Zayed from Liwa five years ago to run his grocery shop. As with the majority of retailers and residents in the towns that dot the Western Region, his business relies heavily on lorries to bring in supplies.

"It will be a long time before we hear the train running, but I can't help dreaming about the great amount of fruits and vegetables that we will be able to get faster and fresher," Mr Ahmed said.

At present, more than 3,000 delivery lorries a day clog the segment of the E11 highway, which connects Musaffah to Sila near the Saudi Arabian border. It takes three hours to drive the two-lane road from Dubai to Madinat Zayed, a journey frequently marred by heavy lorries and speeding cars.

It is hoped that the rail network, which includes a line that runs alongside the highway, will cut down on lorry traffic as well as reduce the impact on the environment.

"One train can remove some 300 lorries from the road, thus improving safety and congestion," Richard Bowker, chief executive officer of the railway, said at a recent conference. "A fully loaded train can produce as little as 15 to 20 per cent of the carbon dioxide that the lorries required to move the same tonnage would emit."

The first tangible elements of the project are due early next year when work is to begin on the 264-kilometre Ruwais Habshan Shah line, a freight path designed to transport granulated sulphur for export from the Shah sour gas field in the desert to Ruwais on the coast. The link is scheduled to be up and running by the end of 2013.

"We are no longer talking about just the concept of building a railway here in the UAE," said Mr Bowker. "We are now getting on with it and putting in place the things necessary to make the vision become a reality."

Railway stations will be built at Madinat Zayed, Liwa and Ruwais as well as other towns along the coast. Although still many months from being operational, the system has raised hopes for an added boost to the local economy.

"With the arrival of the railway here, we will be able to create a specific curriculum that will best benefit anyone wanting to find employment in the railway industry," said Dr Philip Quirke, director of Madinat Zayed and Ruwais Higher Colleges of Technology.

Civil engineering, transport services, logistics management and other transport related courses are among those that could be introduced - possibly as early as next academic year - should there be demand across the four campuses of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in Al Gharbia, said Dr Quirke.

As his first job out of college 30 years ago was with British Railways, he is well acquainted with trains.

"The railway will have a great impact on the Western Region, and it will be interesting to see how it affects transportation here," he said. "I foresee staff working at the colleges who have to travel such long distances, and perhaps some of the students, using the passenger train as an alternative to the roads."

Students at Madinat Zayed's HCT campus come from Mirfa and Liwa, while those studying at the Ruwais campus come from Sila, Delma Island, Ghayathi, Bed Al Metawah and Um Ashtan. Most of the trips take at least an hour each way by car. As for uptake once the train is running, Dr Quirk pointed out that expatriates made up the original bulk of passengers on the Dubai Metro.

"But now, Emiratis also use it," he said. "So it will be interesting to see how the railway transforms this region."

Economic and social benefits aside, there are some who hope the railway can provide the region with "a more romantic" mode of transport.

"There are so many beautiful historic and heritage sites that passengers will be able to see from their windows as they sip their tea and coffee within the comfort of their compartment," said Selim Arifov, senior sales manager at the Tilal Liwa Hotel on the edge of the Rub Al Khali desert. "It will boost tourism from within the country itself, and from outside, and people will meet and befriend each other in a train."

Mr Arifov regularly takes the train back in his home country of Uzbekistan - trips that are not exactly luxurious. He hopes that the UAE train will be different, offering an "Arabesque design" befitting the terrain it will cross.

"There is something soothing about taking the train," he said. "It reminds you to take it easy, and not always be in a hurry and just enjoy the ride."