GCC Rail Project: Less Chug, More Sputter - Gulf Business
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GCC Rail Project: Less Chug, More Sputter

GCC Rail Project: Less Chug, More Sputter

Uncomfortably close to the 2018 completion date, the GCC rail project is swamped by delays and challenges.

In 2011, the GCC formally launched a massive but ambitious plan to connect all six member states by rail, setting an equally demanding deadline of 2018 for the completion of the project.

Four years later, however, the GCC’s rail ambitions are far from on track and unlikely to run as scheduled.

This was more or less confirmed by Abdulla Belhaif Al Nuaimi, the UAE’s minister of public works and chairman of the Federal Transport Authority (FTA), who recently said: “Initially we set the deadline for 2018…but some countries might not deliver on time.”

None of the countries have officially confirmed a delay in building rail networks, but some are still in the tendering phase or are just beginning work, making the 2018 deadline impossible.

“Completion of the GCC rail network is not likely to be before 2020,” said Srinath Manda, programme manager, Transportation and Logistics Practice, Frost & Sullivan.

Manda is not alone in this estimation. “I would say 2020 will be quite challenging,” said Tim Armsby, partner at law firm Eversheds.

“These are complicated projects to pull together. Even a single mass transit system in a city takes a long time to procure. Personally, I am not surprised as often timetables are set to drive process and I don’t think anybody should beat himself or herself about meeting what was an ambitious timeframe.”

Armsby reasoned that for a country launching rail for the first time, it was always likely that the preparation needed to procure the asset and then to build it to begin operations could be underestimated.

“It is a huge exercise and at the same time all these countries are also looking to implement mass transit systems in their urban centres.”

Among GCC member states, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have claimed to be on track with their sections of the overall rail project.

The UAE recently announced that the first phase of its rail network, called Etihad Rail, was in the testing phase and will begin commercial operations by 2015. Al Nuaimi also said that there was a tentative plan to connect the Emirates and Saudi Arabia initially by 2018 if the other members were not ready.

“The UAE and Saudi Arabia can meet the deadline. If that line is operational, then other countries can just add in their lines when they are ready and 2020 might be the appropriate date for all.”

HALF START

However, partial operation of the rail network is not the ideal solution.

“Delays in individual country plans and implementation would lead to a lack of clarity on determining and developing the common (shared) infrastructure and equipment required for the GCC rail network,” said Manda.

“For example decisions on signaling systems, rolling stock compatibility, tracks width/compatibility, cross-border linkages, information systems, security systems, etc. would all lack clarity and lead to delay.”

Although common technical standards are being developed, adoption of the right technology across the entire line is also important.

“You have certain parts of the rail adopting a similar technology and other parts coming later with a new technology. That could cause some issues,” said Armsby.

“There could be issues even with the rolling stock. So in Abu Dhabi, for Etihad Rail, they are using double- stacked wagons that are much higher. It will clearly have a large impact on the size of the tunnels (in other countries).”

GCC countries will also need to cooperate on wider issues such as customs and legislation regulating the railway, he added. Without them, even partial operations between Saudi Arabia and the UAE might be tricky.

“In the old days you just lay a track and put an engine. But nowadays, there are lot of things that need to be looked at and there are going to be lot of legal agreements on cross border traffic and service agreements.”

MORE DELAYS?

Much of this current delay could be attributed to a decentralised approach adopted by Gulf states in implementing the rail project.

FTA advisor Vasile Nicolae Olievschi said that this may have increased the risk of fragmentation and jeopardised the possibility of a seamless market.

“In order to overcome this, the GCC Secretariat assumed the role of coordination. Their main role was to take care of the interoperability,” he said.

But achieving interoperability across more than 2,000 kilometres of rail is easier said than done, he conceded.

“It is easy to say but not easy to achieve interoperability because there are many parties involved here and if there is no proper communication it might create the risk of artificial barriers.”

Important factors include harmonising the components of the system and setting rules for the technical aspects of the project, he argued. While governments also have an important role in ensuring transparency.

“At the GCC level, common guidelines have been activated in technical and operational aspects. With these principles, we have put down the major work for construction and operation but not yet the method to accomplish these roles.”

The biggest challenge will be a lack of coherence between each country’s needs and plans for the rail link, believe some experts.

Although the Secretariat has laid down some common rules with a rail committee consisting of all six members developing guidelines, according to Olievschi.

“We also agreed that some working groups would be organised to look after rail operations, and there are plans to create a GCC rail agency that will supervise all activities to harmonise the process.”

“Each member state should also have a niche group of rail experts who can address these challenges otherwise it will not be easy to manage things,” he recommended.

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