By Peter Newman
Transport: Rail makes a comeback
New car sales around the world are dropping, partly due to the rise of ride-sharing services, as well as traffic congestion in populated cities.
In the GCC alone, we dropped 30 percent in Q1 of 2017 compared to the previous year, with sales in the UAE falling 28 percent, 38 percent in Saudi Arabia and 41 percent in Bahrain, according to a report by Autodata Middle East.
At the same, there has been a revival in rail of all types. The masses are putting our money into fast trains that can go around, over or under the traffic and take up about 1/20th of the space. Consumers, especially millennials, are also not keen on living in far distant suburbs, where very little happens, raising the trend to build back into the city.
In Europe, 68 cities built new or expanded light rail systems between 1980 and 2014; 160 European cities now have light rail. But the biggest surprise has been the growth of rail in the Middle East, where cheap oil meant the car was king.
Today, however, railways are becoming ever popular in the region. In Saudi Arabia, Riyadh’s metro network of six lines will open in 2019, with a high-speed rail linking Jeddah International Airport to Makkah and Medina.
In Dubai, there are two lines of metro with 45 stations, and three extra lines being planned. An integrated light rail and bus system is largely completed, while in Kuwait, a metro is set to launch in 2023.
Yet there is a second revolution taking place: autonomous, electric vehicles. The dramatic move to autonomous vehicles (AV) is just as obviously associated with electric vehicles (EV), as the technologies are parallel in their advantages in creating better futures for cities and regions. Both are growing at over 40 percent per year.
The most significant new kind, AV-EV, is the ‘trackless train’ which will transform the transport niche now being occupied by light rail, and to a large extent by buses, especially Bus Rapid Transit, which can carry 300 to 500 people at 70kph, can fit into road systems and has a magnetic painted strip for tracks.
It has batteries on the roof, is recharged at stations in 30 seconds and is a quarter of the cost of light rail, but can achieve the kind of re-urbanisation around stations so desired by cities. It can also enable AV-EV links with all kinds of flexible local shared mobility systems that can be fed into the station precincts and be recharged from the same solar-recharger.
While there are some certainties about the future transport system, the public wants to save daily travelling time, lessen pollution and have fair accessibility to all. The question that remains is how quickly these new technologies will be adopted.