GCC rail progress full steam ahead

Work is well under way for the rail network in Saudi Arabia and the UAE

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Detailed engineering and design work for the next sections of the 2177km Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rail network will be completed this year, said Ramiz Al-Assar, senior transport specialist for the Middle East and North Africa with the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Department.

Al-Assar spoke at the first UIC conference on railway interoperability, standardization, and harmonization for the Middle East in Doha on March 31. “We will have a meeting of the GCC Railway expert working group in Abu Dhabi on May 11-14 to finalize common guidelines for operation and institutional and regulatory requirements,” Al-Assar told delegates. “We hope to reach agreement on the master schedule in June. Detailed engineering design will be completed this year.”

Etihad Rail has already completed its 120km coastal section in the United Arab Emirates and plans to launch the second stage soon of its 628km section of the GCC Railway. Al-Assar pointed out that Saudi Arabia has started construction of another 200km section and will need to build around 600km of new line.

Qatar Rail expects to receive bids on April 6 to pre-qualify for a design and build contract for the first phase of its railway from Doha to the Saudi border, although the government has asked for the alignment to be altered to avoid a military base.

“A study will be completed in June for a railway causeway linking Dammam in Saudi Arabia with Bahrain where two stations are planned,” Al-Assar further said.

“We are mandated to complete the project in 2018 and while there could be some slippage, because the project is split into relatively short sections in each country I believe it is achievable in two to three years,” he noted.

The GCC Rail connection will provide member state with alternative export and import options. Rail will enable connections from and to ports south of the Strait of Hormuz, as well as other ports on the Arabian Sea. The Land Bridge in Saudi Arabia will give member states access to the Red Sea ports of Jeddah, Yanbu and Rabegh.

Equally important from a strategic point of view is the fact that rail will provide an important alternative to sea trading routes, currently under threat by piracy.

Piracy impacts supply chains of the Arabian Gulf through additional cost, risks and deceased customer confidence. Apart from the obvious negative impact on any one vessel, there is also an economic domino effect throughout the entire vertical value chain within the maritime sector. With only limited possibilities to bypass the dangerous waters zone, piracy is currently a direct threat to any industry using the Arabian Gulf as a transport route for imports and exports. Providing alternative, safe transport route, interconnected with export points throughout the South of the Arabian Gulf, the Arab Sea and the Red Sea, is a potent weapon against potential future instability at strategic supply chain maritime transport routes, affected by the threat of piracy.

Each of the GCC governments has launched various rail projects, currently worth over $100 billion. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have taken the furthest strides to date.

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