A thing about trains

Held in Abu Dhabi, 2011's Middle East Rail conference hosted dreams of peace, love and profitable high-speed rolling stock.

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By his own admission, for a man travelling the world extolling the virtues of railways, Timothy Galarnyk is the owner of "an awful lot of air miles".

High Speed Rail Asia 2010 at the Renaissance View Hotel in Hong Kong, Urban Transport Brasil 2010 at the Sheraton Barro in Rio … if this is Tuesday, it must be Middle East Rail 2011 at the Beach Rotana hotel in Abu Dhabi.

After a lifetime of obscurity in the infrastructure construction business, Galarnyk, who in 1996 founded his own consultancy, Construction Risk Management, has been fast-tracked to relative late-career fame as The Vigilante Inspector.

Disappointingly, this new 10-part series from the History Channel does not feature Galarnyk as an infrastructural Charles Bronson, mercilessly hunting down and slaying the perpetrators of sloppy maintenance. Instead, as the blurb has it, he will "take a look at our nation's infrastructure... bridges, tunnels, roadways, rails, dams, sewer mains, power lines, communications towers... you name it!"

Ten episodes? Clearly, this is a show pitched squarely at train-spotters and that, perhaps, is why the man in the yellow hard hat finds himself in such demand as the warm-up act for railway conferences the world over.

As Middle East Rail 2011 starts to gather steam in Abu Dhabi, the arriving delegates are treated to a puzzling choice of muzak that seems somehow inappropriate for a railway conference - an instrumental version of the 1975 Rod Stewart hit We Are Sailing. This is followed by a faintly disturbing animated film, in which the organising company's terrapin logo dances to an accompanying caption urging the audience to "Love the turtle".

It's a tough act to follow, but The Vigilante Inspector gives it his best shot.

"I expect we're all here today to have some fun," is Galarnyk's opening crowd-warmer, a sentiment that earns a lone and faintly cynical "Yo!" from the back of the room but is otherwise greeted by uncertain glances from the assembled major players on the international railway scene. Fun? They, clearly, are here to make some money.

"Well," quips Galarnyk to a stony silence, "at least one of you is going to have some fun."

Galarnyk isn't helped by the fact that he's fighting the clock. In a train-related phenomenon that would be depressingly familiar to commuters in the UK - birthplace of the railway and all its torments - the programme is already running 20 minutes behind schedule.

The delay probably also comes as little surprise to Richard Bowker, the British head of the UAE's recently formed Union Railway Company, who is sitting patiently on the platform, waiting to take part in the opening panel discussion, "Delivering the Middle East rail vision".

Bowker's last vision, for the UK's East Coast Main Line, former home of the legendary Flying Scotsman, didn't work out so well. In 2009, following huge losses and the revelation by the UK rail regulator that the East Coast line was the second most complained about train service in the country, National Express was obliged to surrender the franchise and Bowker resigned as chief executive. It was, as The Daily Telegraph noted, a timely departure.

Now in Abu Dhabi, he is currently charged with delivering the proposed 1,500km freight and passenger rail network that will link the UAE end-to-end and, ultimately, be part of a planned GCC-wide system.

Here, at least, the man bowed by the shambolic economic complexities of Britain's post-privatisation railway "system" is starting with a clean sheet - and is unlikely to find his efforts thwarted by autumnal falls of the wrong sort of leaves. Sand drifts, however, could prove more problematic.

Meanwhile Galarnyk, trying to make up time, is rattling through a condensed version of his pitch. In one sentence the man from Minnesota moves smoothly into the patter of a Woodstock-era peacenik, as he urges the world to come together in rail-assisted harmony.

"Can you imagine me, a gentleman from the United States, being in the same room with Iran and Syria?" he asks.

To be honest, there's a bit of breath-holding. Sitting next to Bowker at the other end of the stage is Dr Mohammad Montazeri, deputy managing director of the Tehran Urban and Suburban Railway Company. One of its stations is right outside the former US embassy in the city. He seems to be trying hard not to snap his head round to look in Galarnyk's direction.

"And that's a good thing," continues The Vigilante, and everyone breathes again. "Because this conference is to bring people together, to share our knowledge, not to dictate. To form a coalition..." - he is not, surely, going to say "of the willing"? - "... of people, where we can all get together and find a way in harmony and peace. There is turmoil across the world, and that turmoil is spreading; and I think with more conferences like this we can find common ground."

Right on, man; three days of peace, love and profitable high-speed rail connections.

It might seem odd to be staging a railway conference thousands of kilometres from the nearest operating railway - if you discount Dubai's driverless rapid-transit Metro - but then this conference is more about the future than the present, and the burgeoning renaissance of railways in the region.

It has to be said that the Arab world's introductory flirtation with the romance of steam didn't end well.

The first railway in the region was the Hejaz, a narrow-gauge line which spanned the 1,300 kilometres from Damascus to Medina, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, between 1908 and 1915. Built by the Ottoman Turks and the Germans, it never really recovered from the attentions of the Arabs who, aided and abetted by Lawrence of Arabia, took great delight in repeatedly blowing it up during the 1916-18 revolt. Fragments of blasted line and the carcasses of toppled locomotives still litter the desert today.

Now, however, the Saudis are back on track, with a flurry of projects including the ambitious Land Bridge, a line that will cross the country from Red Sea to Arabian Gulf. Throughout the region, in fact, where even the oil-rich nations are recognising the need for sustainability in all things, environmentally and economically friendly railways are the next big thing.

All this, of course, is big business - especially in the UAE, where Bowker's Union Railway is about to put out to tender the first of the contracts for its $11 billion network - and the conference exhibition heaves with contractors from around the world angling for a slice of a pie large enough to satisfy the appetite of even the fattest Fat Controller. There is, apparently, a fortune to be made supplying exothermic rail connections and parallel flange beams.

Freight is one thing; shipping it by rail rather than road makes economic and environmental sense. But when it comes to persuading UAE commuters to take advantage of the planned high-speed rail link between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Galarnyk believes the biggest challenge will be "how to convince the people that the railway will be dependable, efficient and an option that makes the car a non-option".

After a one-day tour of all things infrastructural in Dubai, including the Metro, he believes the answer lies in laying on luxury wagons - and he sees a metaphor for the operating model in the seating arrangements in the auditorium. "Look in the conference room," he says as it starts to fill up before his speech. "You have three tiers of audience; you have the VIPs, very comfortable in nice chairs; then you have the second group, sitting at round tables. And then..."

Of course, in the high-end UAE, even "cattle class" is a relative term and, as the conference-goers take their seats, even those in the perfectly acceptable cheap ones find a complimentary chocolate on their chair, courtesy of Nokia Siemens Networks.

Later that night, the conference-goers do their best to take Galarnyk's advice and have some fun, flocking undeterred by irony to the Yas Marina Circuit - that temple of the car - for the Middle East Rail Awards. Dubai's Metro ends up sweeping the board, a not altogether surprising result. The emirate's rail network is, after all, already up and running and carrying an average of 170,000 passengers every day.