Throughout its long history, the railway has proven to be one of the fastest, most efficient, most comfortable and most sustainable means of transport.
As a result of constant research and innovation, its relevance to the transport infrastructure of a country has continued to increase over the decades, with the lowest accident rate of all ground transportation and an environmental impact that is second only to the bike.
Factors such as the consolidation of railways, and the interest of many GCC cities in metro and tram lines as clean and sustainable transport alternatives, have posed new challenges in the construction of this type of infrastructure.
Riyadh started its Metro project in 2014 and will feature six metro lines and 85 stations, spanning a total distance of 176km and expecting to serve 3.6 million passengers per day once it is fully operational in 2021.
In the UAE, Dubai Municipality long ago identified the need for a rail system to relieve growing motor traffic levels and support continuing urban development, based on studies which began in 1997. The city inaugurated its metro network in September 2009, fully operated by the RTA – becoming the first urban metro network to run in the Gulf’s Arab states.
Another huge project to be developed is the Saudi Landbridge Project, one of the biggest in the region with an estimated investment of $7bn and construction of more than 1,000km of new line between Jeddah and the Eastern region, with another 115km track between Dammam and Jubail. With the construction of the Jeddah-Riyadh rail link, the time taken for passenger transport will be six hours instead of the current 10 to 12 hours via bus.
The UAE has developed a clear vision as well as a carefully-planned strategy to play a leadership role in the field of rail transport infrastructure. The Etihad Rail project, which will be the first national freight and passenger railway network connecting the main emirates of the UAE, is expected to be a sustainable and efficient alternative for transportation of freight and passengers throughout urban and rural areas of the Emirates. The 1,200km railway project is estimated to cost Dhs40bn ($11bn).
The infrastructure will become a vital part of the $100bn GCC rail programme, connecting the UAE with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. And adopting international best practices will play an important role in railways’ sustainable development.
One of the biggest challenges we see companies face is the technical complexity of constructing tunnels and viaducts in railway lines.
These break down into countless engineering tasks, including breaking through mountain ranges and circumventing difficult passes, the technology for which has evolved greatly over the years to help the ferrying by rail of passengers and freight – bringing subsequent social and economic benefits.
The construction of this new world would not have been possible without tunnel boring machines, for example, which would be nothing more than science fiction if it were not for a handful of companies that have been designing, every day for many years now, veritable works of art in the name of engineering.
Today, the development of railway infrastructure is synonymous with development, technology and sustainability. According to organisers of Middle East Rail, the UAE along with Saudi Arabia account for a huge chunk of the $69bn worth of rail projects under construction in the GCC.
Through railways, these countries are aiding the transition to renewable energies and the evolution of new mobility models. And the reason for this is very simple: Railways enjoy a combination of sustainability, safety and energy efficiency unattainable for other means of transport.
As such, cities that are integrated into a well-developed and well maintained railway infrastructure can stimulate their development through the fluid exchange of people, goods and businesses.
Alvaro Aguilar is the ME business development manager for ACCIONA