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Long train running

Is a 2018 finish really crucial for the GCC rail network?

Michael Fahy
Michael Fahy

Sitting through the first day of the GCC’s rail conference held in Oman last week, it became clear just how much work still needs to be done on the network.

There is more than 2,177 km of track to be laid, and in most of the six states there is little or no history of building rail networks. Moreover, a number of participants felt that a regulatory network should be in place before major procurement decisions are taken – something that has yet to happen, and is only likely to later this year.

Given that Qatar Rail’s deputy CEO Hamad Al Bishri estimates that 75% of the $38bn it is spending on metro and rail systems will go on construction and infrastructure, that would presumably mean holding off on awarding contracts until wrangling over the rules is sorted out.

Thankfully, not all member states believe this needs to happen before contractors can be appointed, which is good news for the industry – especially those who submitted bids to build phase two of Etihad Rail over two years ago.
Oman’s transport minister, HE Dr Ahmed bin Mohammed bin Salem Al-Futaisi, said that as long as construction, safety and procurement methods were agreed, states should progress.

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Oman and the UAE are the two most advanced nations in terms of getting networks built, with designs in place and decisions due to be made on contractors soon. Al Futaisi expects Oman will agree deals with contractors and an operator this year.

Bahrain expects its design studies to be completed by the end of March. This will allow it to begin procurement, but Saudi Arabia has only recently appointed a firm to undertake detailed design, which could take another 12 months to complete.

Qatar is embracing the design and build route for its $7.4bn long distance rail network, but Al Bishri said it does not expect to award the contract for this until Q2 2016, and work will only start in Q3 – leaving just 18 months for building.

Kuwait has only just completed pre-qualifying for design consultants, but has also said it will begin construction next year.

Yet given that so much of the conference’s focus was on building a sustainable rail supply chain in the region, it begs the question of whether meeting the 2018 date is essential?

Bahrain’s undersecretary for land transport, Maryam Ahmed Jumaan, called for a study into developing a supply chain, with all six states agreeing on where to procure from to leverage buying power, as well as pooling resources on training and services.

Without such a strategy, given the tight timeframes, there is not only a danger of spiralling costs as states compete for resources, but also that local suppliers will fail to capture the benefit from big enough orders for them to invest in the sector. It could also lead to operators scrambling to import elements that could just as easily be built in the region in order to hit a self-imposed deadline.

I understand that things can be, and often are, built at incredible speed in this region, which is a credit to the skills of contractors and project managers, but surely giving local businesses the best chance possible to participate in the region’s rail boom would be best for the economy as a whole, wouldn’t it?

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