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Sun 1 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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UAE assesses freight rail network

The UAE has launched a study into the construction of a freight and container rail network linking the country’s seven emirates.

The UAE has launched a study into the construction of a freight and container rail network linking the country’s seven emirates. Such a system could offer an attractive alternative to road and air for local logistics companies, and it may also spur the start of work on the region’s long held dream of a pan-Arabian rail network.

Various studies into a Gulf and/or UAE rail network have been commissioned over the years without much action. However, the growth of the local economy and of the amount of traffic using the region’s roads is encouraging regional governments to reassess the merits of rail. Saudi Arabia, for instance, recently announced plans to build the Saudi Landbridge, which would greatly expand the Kingdom’s rail network.

“[Trains] offer an efficient and economic means of transport, and in terms of cost, they can rival road,” commented Dr Marc Kaddoura, chairman & CEO of railway infrastructure specialists, VAE Group. “In the medium-haul range, trains also offer a challenge to air traffic.”

The latest UAE study, which was commissioned by General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, will look at the construction of a freight railway. Depending on the project chosen, the network would be between 700 and 1000 km in length. It would connect all seven of the emirates, with the main trunk running Sharjah-Dubai-Abu Dhabi. Financing for the construction work, which could cost up to US $3.8 billion, is likely to be raised via a public-private partnership.

The Emirates Rail project could also potentially link up with a number of other rail projects across the region, which form the Arabian railway network. This ambitious plan comprises 10 arteries and would total 25,000 km in length. It would stretch from the Syrian/Turkish border in the north down to Aden and Salalah in the south via Iraq and the UAE. A parallel line would run through Jordan and Saudi Arabia down to Yemen. A westward line would run across North Africa, linking in with the various national rail networks in the region, before terminating in Mauritania on the Atlantic.

No timeframe has been given for the Arabian rail network, but it has recently been studied by the Arab Railway Union (ARU) and the Syrian General Corporation for Railways in association with the Arab Transport Ministers Council of the Arab League. The plan would be to link up the region’s highly fragmented rail networks, which includes separate systems in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These network are currently all under-developed though, as well as being sparsely utilised.

The ARU review showed a number challenges for the project, including the massive amount of construction work it would entail and the fact that existing rail gauges in the region vary between 950 mm and the standard 1435 mm. However, with high level discussions now taking place about these challenges, rail advocates in the region, such Issa Baluch, chairman & CEO, Swift Freight International, are encouraged that action may soon be on the cards.

“I have always envisaged — looking at what is happening in Europe and the US — that the future is rail, although it has got a lot of challenges,” he said. “It is an eco-friendly system and it will reduce the maintenance of roads. It will also get people to think of alternatives to road... I think the future is definitely railway transport,” Baluch added.

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