Every country in the Mena region has announced rail or metro plans and in total there are more than $200 billion worth of rail and metro projects either planned or under way in the Middle East, said a specialist transport consultant.
This translates to more than 33,700 km of mainline routes and 3,000 km of new metro lines, said Cosema Crawford, senior vice president and rail and transit global practice leader at Louis Berger, a US-based architectural and engineering design firm.
The award of major metro and rail contracts in the Middle East has made the region among the most important sources of new work for all those designing, building, supplying and operating railways.
“The Middle East is perhaps the fastest growing market for rail and transit in the world. Cities are growing and mobility is increasing, driving the need for robust public transportation networks,” said Crawford.
“High-speed rail networks are being built in great numbers, particularly in China which now boasts about half of the world’s systems,” noted Crawford , who will be speaking at the 10th annual Meed Mena Rail & Metro Summit which opens in Dubai, UAE, next week.
“An increasing number of system suppliers have entered the market, which should help stabilize pricing.” "The sector is booming across the world, and the Middle East can learn important lessons from the experiences of others," she stated.
High-speed rail, seen in the Middle East as an innovation, has an extensive history. Confidence is now growing in its capacity to reach new levels of performance and speed.
“Japan is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen this year, and it is developing the next generation of maglev trains which will travel at 500 km an hour between Tokyo and Osaka,” Crawford added. “Louis Berger is involved in bringing the same maglev technology to the United States providing one hour service from Washington DC to New York.”
Crawford explained that demand for high-speed rail solutions will increase for more than one reason. “High-speed rail popularity will grow as a better and significantly greener alternative to air and car travel,” she said. “As confidence grows in ridership and revenue figures, public private partnership (PPP) opportunities will develop as well.”
The GCC’s first high-speed railway is the 450-km Haramain High Speed Rail project that links Jeddah with Rabigh, Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia. It is scheduled to open in 2015 and will break the mould for the Middle East. Also due to open the same year is the Morocco’s TGV network from Tangiers to Casablanca, which will be the first high-speed rail technology to be employed on the African continent.
“As traffic congestion continues to grow, public transportation networks become essential, including intercity travel on high-speed rail,” said Crawford about the need for new transport solutions in the region.
“High-speed rail is ultimately an instrument for development, and the costs for implementation should be considered and financed in that light. High-speed rail systems are dependent on good local public transportation networks to take riders to their final destinations.”
“Most importantly, there needs to be a cultural shift to accept public transportation systems. Seasonal high temperatures and lack of pedestrian infrastructure need to be addressed in the design of the stations.”
The engineering challenges are also formidable.
“High-speed rail requires straight alignments in order to maintain speed,” Crawford said. “Developed areas may have difficulty identifying suitable corridors, resulting in compromises on speed, substantial property takings, or extensive tunneling, with the latter two adding to the cost and schedule.”
“True high-speed rail cannot co-exist with other rail modes on the same tracks, such as freight rail,” Crawford pointed out. “In addition, special solutions are required to maintain the required level of track integrity over long distances of desert conditions with blowing sand.”