The GCC member states are undertaking massive and transformative rail investments in a bid to boost freight and passenger capacity. The new 2,177 km long rail network will run down the Gulf coast from Kuwait, through Saudi Arabia, to the UAE and Oman, with branches linking Bahrain and Qatar, and it is anticipated to be operational in 2018.
The planned GCC Railway, represents the most ambitious aspect of the region’s railway infrastructure plans, and it includes Doha Metro, and the Qatar Railway in Qatar; the Rapid Transport Network in Bahrain, the Riyadh Light Rail, Saudi Landbridge Rail, Jubail Railway, Jeddah Monorail and Mecca Metro in Saudi Arabia; Etihad Rail and Abu Dhabi Metro in the UAE; Metro and National Rail of Kuwait; as well as Oman Railway.
Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, director-general of International Union of Railways (UIC), the worldwide association of railway companies with 240 members from 95 countries on all five continents, talks to bq magazine about the significance of this huge achievement for the Middle East.
bq: All the GCC member states are set to build new rail networks. Can you estimate it’s strategic and economic significance on a global level?
Jean-Pierre Loubinoux: The renaissance of rail transportation that is occurring at the beginning of the 21st century in many parts of the world, in developed as well as in developing countries is also becoming a reality in the Middle East and particularly the region of the Gulf States represented in the GCC. The GCC countries decided all together an ambitious development plan for a rail transportation system including light rail transportation (LRT – mass transit), international rail links and freight links for a total estimated amount of USD 250 billion.
This estimated amount for investment is to be compared with an investment amount of 40 percent (for rail transportation) of USD 10,000 billion to be dedicated to transport development (all transport modes) on a global level until 2050.
Decision-makers in the Middle-East region are fully aware of the potential advantage and efficiency of the rail transportation system to promote mobility of people and goods in the region and develop new transportation links serving national unity of the countries as well as offering new connections between GCC countries or with neighbouring countries.
bq: What are the main challenges for the GCC member states in building their rail network system?
JPL: Ambitious development plans in the GCC region include a great diversity of projects and achievements, among others: the high speed rail and freight links projects in Saudi Arabia, underground mass transit systems in Dubai, Qatar, Kuwait, also important projects of linking Muscat to Kuwait with a branch to Saudi Arabia, projects representing more than 2,000 km of new lines and an investment of around USD 15 billion.
Saudi Arabia together with United Arab Emirates (UAE) will represent essential links of the regional network development with over 600 km of new railway infrastructure.
How can we summarize the strategic challenges with this future rail system? In developing mobility for people – using the future high speed rail system- and for goods, railways and public transportation systems will play an essential role to support the growth of the regional and inter-regional economies.
These railway systems will also contribute to creating a greater regional coherence of the Middle-East vis-à-vis all neighbouring regions such as Asia or Europe. One of the main challenges is the financing of these huge investments, considering the large diversity of stakeholders involved.
A significant challenge is the overall planning of projects for countries with no historic tradition of railway development or operations (with exception of Saudi Arabia railways). Planning has to be considered in a global coherence framework including financing, construction, operations, maintenance. Another specific challenge for the Middle East comprises technical challenges connected to extreme conditions in the region, extreme climatic conditions, sand, etc.
bq: Can you estimate the role of railways in securing sustainable development of the GCC region?
JPL: As with rail projects in all other parts of the world, the sustainability of rail transport is one of the determining criteria considered by politicians and decision-makers. The advantages of rail transport over competing transport modes in terms of energy-efficiency or pollution is relevant to all UIC members all over the world. We in the UIC fully support the idea that the future of mobility and sustainable transport will be ensured via an optimal combination of all transport modes in a highly efficient multimodal mobility system.
In this regard, UIC as the worldwide organization of railways is playing a spearheading role in demonstrating in the United Nations’ arena all the benefits of rail transportation in terms of energy-efficiency, low pollution through CO2 and potential contribution to efficient policies against climate change at the level of the planet.
This awareness of the role of transport and advantages of railways in the global debate on climate change is shared by all leading international institutions and in the first place by the United Nations.
UIC as an international organization with consultative status – representing railways – to the UN and UN ECOSOC, let hear the railways’ voice at the recent United Climate Change Summit 2014 in New York. This was an opportunity for us to inform the UN bodies on the commitments of the rail sector (and UIC members) in terms of sustainability and to present the latest edition of the report jointly prepared with the International Energy Agency (IAE) on energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
In this regard, my nomination as a member – representing railways – of the High-level Advisory Group to the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon for Sustainable Transport, demonstrates how this issue of clean transport modes has become a global issue for all leaders and decision-makers of the planet.
bq: What can you say about the cooperation among Middle Eastern states’ railways?
JPL: One of UIC’s most important and promising developments in the UIC cooperation system is the definition of strategies and action plans for the six UIC regions.
The UIC Regional Assembly for the Middle-East (RAME) is chaired by the Turkish State Railways TCDD (Süleyman Karaman) and vice chaired by railways of Iran (RAI), Saudi Arabia (SRO) and Aqaba Railway of Jordan (ARC). Countries represented by members are: Iran (RAI, NirooRail, METRA), Iraq (IRR) Jordan (ARC, JHR), Qatar (QRC), Saudi Arabia (SRO), Syria (CFS, CFH), Turkey (TCDD), UAE (NTA/UAE, Etihad Rail). This regional group of UIC started to work in 2007.
One of the most significant achievements is the elaboration in 2013 of a “Strategic Vision for the development of railways in the Middle-East” complemented by a report “Regional and Supra-Regional Rail Transportation Links – Middle East”. These documents prepared in close cooperation with all railways from the region present in a coherent manner all railway and multimodal projects planned in the Middle East region, including corridors linking the Middle East to neighbouring regions.
The UIC Middle East Action Plan 2015 will focus its action on publicizing the Strategic Vision for Railways in the Middle East vis-à-vis all leading international organizations, and to promote international cooperation between members from the Middle East region -with support of UIC – on all relevant issues of railway operations, high speed rail operations, signaling and traffic management, safety and security, passenger issues, standardization and interoperability, infrastructure maintenance including extreme conditions.
UIC as the worldwide organization of railways with over 93 years of experience has gathered over this period the technical and operational expertise from its members from all regions of the world. As such UIC is able to support and advise its members in organizing exchange of experience and best practices in all determining issues of railway development or operations.
bq: Has the UIC played an active role in advising the GCC member states when it comes to technical and safety issues and as well as regulations and standards of future railway systems?
JPL: The railways of the GCC countries, as they have decided to become UIC members (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE are members, Oman is in discussion for membership) can benefit from all the technical expertise gathered in the UIC, reflected in the UIC standards (“UIC leaflets”, UIC International Railway Standard in preparation) and the activities coordinated by UIC professional bodies, forums and platforms (Railway System, Passenger, Freight, Safety, Security, Research, Energy and Environment, Training and Expertise Development).
In actively participating in these projects and activities, railways from the Middle East can have access to an extremely rich number and diversity of railway standards, practices and solutions in development or successfully implemented in various parts of the world.
In the Framework of its Action Plan for the Middle East, UIC regularly organizes conferences, seminars, workshops, on all railway issues with high priority for the region. As an example, an international conference on Railway Interoperability and Standardization should be organized by UIC with Qatar Railways QRC in the first quarter of 2015 in cooperation with the OTIF international organization.
Further, UIC regional workshops will be dedicated in 2015 to ERTMS and standardized traffic management (Jordan), infrastructure maintenance (Jordan), cooperation between Rail and Ports and Oil industry and Rail (Iran), International Rail Business Forum (Turkey) among others.