The Middle East has had a railway network for over a century, although development was slow. The Hejaz Railway from Damascus to Medina opened in 1913, extending into the existing line from Istanbul.

However, the First World War halted plans to take the line as far as Mecca and the between-wars politics didn’t help. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Istanbul was connected with Basra in Southern Iraq.

Even then, more wars and disputes got in the way and that line is no longer open for its full distance.

Sudden interest

Now, however, the Middle East is embarking on a remarkable run of railway construction, albeit a bit further south. Involvement from overseas is welcomed fully. His Excellency Dr Ahmed Bin Mohammed Bin Salim Al Futaisi, Minister of Transport and Communications in Oman, recently estimated that around $200 billion was being invested in building more than 10,000 kilometres of railway in the Middle East.

The level of rail investment in the Middle East is quite simply staggering. Major cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah and Doha are building complete metro systems from scratch and as a whole, the region has grand plans to construct and link national rail networks as part of a much wider railway project connecting all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries forming an international rail network.

Beyond the technical challenges of laying tracks in the desert, the GCC rail project is as much a political exercise as a challenging infrastructure project, as it relies on the cooperation of all member states. With some schemes developing quicker than others, the problem is ensuring it all links up. This very issue was raised at the Middle East Rail conference in 2014. As this year’s event draws near, it is worth considering how the rail initiative has moved on over the past 12 months.

Cooperation between states

The GCC is made up of six member states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Each of the states is contributing to the project, building a section of the line each. In addition to this, many cities are pursuing plans for new metro networks. Dubai is extending its fully automated metro system. Abu Dhabi hopes to build a light rail network that will link the central business district with the island suburbs surrounding the city.

The total length of the GCC railway is estimated to be 2,117 km, starting from Kuwait, passing through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and ending in Oman. Middle East Rail 2015 will discuss and seek to find solutions to some of the growing pains the Middle East is encountering. Seminars will consider the need for harmonisation of safety and technical standards between the countries and the importance of training in creating a skilled rail workforce in the region. The day-to- day challenges, such as how to speed up the cleaning of trains between journeys, will be raised.

Spanish flavour

Saudi Arabia’s railway is developing at an exceptional rate. The SAR project, also known as the North South Railway Network, is a 2,750-kilometre mixed-traffic railway stretching from Riyadh to Al Haditha near the Jordanian border. It also includes a second line from the Al-Jalamid mine to Ras AlKhair on the coast of the Arabian Gulf. The line is already open to freight traffic and passenger services are planned to begin this year.

Another substantial development is the 950-kilometre Landbridge Line between Jeddah and Riyadh. But in terms of sheer publicity, both of these projects struggle to detract attention away from the 460-kilometre Haramain High- Speed Rail Line, which from next year should be transporting pilgrims between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Around two million pilgrims make the expedition each year, putting a substantial strain on the roads between Mecca, Medina and Jeddah.

Riyadh [online]

The first of 36 train sets being built by Spanish manufacturer Talgo was shipped from Barcelona to Jeddah in December last year. The 300 km/h trains are specially designed to cope with desert running where temperatures can reach 55oC. These challenging conditions require the trains to be covered with special films and coatings designed to keep sand particles out.

The entire project has a Mediterranean tone. A consortium of 12 Spanish companies was awarded the €6.7 billion contract in November 2011 for phase two, while a French/ Chinese consortium is delivering the project’s first phase. Spanish operator Renfe and infrastructure manager Adif are both connected to the project alongside engineering firms OHL and Ineco. Adif sees the project as an opportunity to demonstrate its abilities on a global platform.

Saudi Arabia will be relying on Renfe’s experience of running high-speed rail services as the line’s operator. Renfe will also be responsible for recruiting staff and building maintenance depots in both Mecca and Medina.

UAE growth

Another GCC member making strides with its national rail network is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). For the GCC network to work, all members need to be onboard. The UAE is building a 1,200-kilometre line from the border with Saudi Arabia to the border of Oman.

Trial freight services are already in operation on phase one of the line between Shah, Habshan and the Port of Ruwais. The line will soon be used to transport seven million tonnes of granulated sulphur a year for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC). An official announcement for the phase two contracts is imminent. This length of the line will complete the section of the railway in the Abu Dhabi emirate. Like the Haramain High-Speed Rail Line, Etihad Rail has also enlisted the help of a European rail market leader, with Deutsche Bahn contracted to run the line’s freight activities.

Other than a surprisingly-modern narrow-gauge tourist railway transporting tourists to and from the Al Hoota Cave near Muscat, Oman is currently railway-less. The Al Hoota Cave railway system was designed by British company Severn Lamb, which is now developing an ‘ultra-light rail’ system for Turkey. A national railway system is planned and the Government of Oman is confident it can begin work soon and meet deadlines to connect it up to the wider GCC system.

Of all of the GCC projects, Oman is expected to be the most expensive per kilometre due to the mountainous terrain between Muscat and the Emirates border. In total, the network will stretch for over 2,000 kilometres and include 20 stations. As well as connecting Muscat and the UAE, the railway will travel south to the ports of Duqm and Salalah and to the border with Yemen.

New networks

Dubai is a record-breaking city, boasting the world’s tallest building – the 2,716-foot Khalifa Tower – and the world’s longest automated metro. Dubai’s infrastructure planning is geared towards the arrival of the World Expo in 2020 – the first time the event has been held in the region. This includes doubling the length of the Green Line and building 21 new stations across the entire network.

Among its accolades, the Dubai Metro was also the first urban rail system to be built in the Middle East. Over the next decade, many more will start to appear on the Arabian Peninsular. Abu Dhabi is proposing to construct a metro line and two new light rail lines, the first phase of which should be completed by 2017.

ShadowPP EtihadR 3782 [online]

A year ago, Prince Khalid bin Bandar broke ground on Line 4 of Riyadh’s new £15 billion metro system, which will include six automated lines and 25 stations, some of which feature incredibly lavish exterior designs. The project is a ‘who’s who’ of major international rail companies. Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier, Strukton, Ansaldo STS, Bechtel, Parsons and Systra are all involved. Saudi Arabia’s second city, Jeddah, is also developing an urban rail system. Design contracts were awarded last year and the entire system is scheduled for completion in the early 2020s.

Elsewhere, Qatar has created a single body, Qatar Rail, to manage the country’s rail strategy. Plans for long-distance, freight and strategy. Plans for long-distance, freight and metro systems are all being handled by the organisation. Qatar’s main line rail network will connect Doha with the Saudi Arabian border and support high-speed services. A second line will then also link Doha with Hamad International Airport and Bahrain.

Exhibition and conference

In 2014, more than 3,000 people attended Middle East Rail. Launched in 2007, the show has grown to become the largest of its kind in the Middle East region. In 2015, the exhibition and conference in Dubai expects to attract 6,000 attendees, more exhibitors and put more focus on the GCC and North Africa. Last year marked the beginning of a three-year partnership with the National Transport Authority (NTA) and Ministry of Public Works in the UAE.

The opening keynote address this year will be given by His Excellency Abdulla Belhaif Al Nuaimi, the UAE’s Minister of Public Works, who holds a PhD in construction management from the University of Reading.

For international rail suppliers, it is an opportunity either to try and crack the Middle East or to further existing relationships. For the region itself, it is an opportunity to tap into the hundreds of years of railway expertise from countries like the UK as it did 120 years ago. Rail Media will be there, so pop onto stand K64 in Dubai and talk to the team from Rail Engineer.