Dubai Metro: Full steam ahead

The mean streets of Dubai are no place for the faint hearted, especially not if you're in a hurry. Jamie Stewart finds out if Dubai Metro will bring drivers some much needed relief.

Going underground. The red and green lines include
Going underground. The red and green lines include

The mean streets of Dubai are no place for the faint hearted, especially not if you're in a hurry. Jamie Stewart finds out if Dubai Metro will bring drivers some much needed relief.

There is a foreboding message pinned to the wall at Union Station, the largest of Dubai's metro stations currently under construction. "Failure is not an option," it says. "371 days remaining to revenue service."

The same message is pinned to the wall at the Jebel Ali station. It's a fair bet that wherever you go on the under-construction Dubai Metro project, you're never far from the message.

 

The biggest challenge was the diversion of traffic without causing hindrance and affecting the traffic flow. - Adnan Al Hammadi, director of rail projects construction, RTA.

The previous day, it was approaching 2 pm in the centre of Dubai. At mid-afternoon, traffic was relatively light. But this would quickly change. The masses were about to finish work.

"It is good now," said one of Dubai's taxi drivers. "But wait five or 10 minutes, and you will have serious traffic jams everywhere."

The taxi drivers of Dubai are a long-suffering breed. On the same day, a different driver told of a 2 ½ half hour trip to Sharjah at rush hour. A journey that, in light traffic, should have taken around half an hour.

It was against this backdrop that the project every taxi driver has been waiting for arose. And the client? None other than the taxi driver's employer - the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).

The US $4.2 billion (AED15.5 billion) Dubai Metro project was announced by the Government of Dubai in 2004. It was becoming abundantly clear to the highest office in the land that in order for Dubai to compete on the global stage in tourism and commerce it was high time to bring some much needed relief to the choked streets.

Construction of the metro began in January 2005. In typical Dubai style, things were not done in half measures. The RTA laid out its plans for the biggest driverless metro system in the world, and the longest metro track ever to be constructed from scratch.
 

The main contractor is Dubai Rapid Link (DURL), a consortium of Japanese firms. By its very nature, construction of the project presented a daunting task from inception.

"The biggest challenge was the diversion of traffic without causing hindrance and affecting the traffic flow," says Adnan Al Hammadi, director of rail projects construction.

Both lines of the initial two line system are currently under construction. The red line, which is due to open on September 9, 2009 (09/09/09), runs a total of 52.1km from Rashidiya to Jebel Ali.

 

Introduction of the metro will help reduce traffic congestion by 17%. - Adnan Al Hammadi.

The green line, stretching 23.9kms around Dubai creek from Al Qusais to Jedaff, is set for completion on March 21, 2010.

A fortnight ago it was announced that it was possible to walk the length of the red line from beginning to end, three days ahead of schedule. Quite a feat in a city where materials shortages are never far from construction headlines.

Then again, if you need to ensure the job gets done, it no doubt helps to name drop the Government of Dubai. A sign that if something needs to get done, it will happen.

The track itself will be familiar to anyone who has driven along Sheikh Zayed Road in recent months. Likened by some to a roller-coaster, it climbs above and dives below existing bridges, snaking along much of Dubai's main thoroughfare, and threading through the city's existing infrastructure.

The designers went over bridges where possible to avoid the hazard of debris falling from above. In a driverless system, track obstructions can pose serious problems.

At the Burjuman shopping centre, the track dives below ground, tunneling under Dubai Creek. The system will also include a "leaky feed," allowing passengers to make and receive mobile phone calls from underground.

Footbridges have been installed overnight with the help a self propelled mobile transporter, an immense Japanese-built machine. The bridges will be air-conditioned, and fitted with conveyors. This is Dubai. Why walk when you can travelate?
 

Al Hammadi believes the metro will be enough to prise residents of Dubai from the seats of their cars when combined with broad improvements in the public transport network.

"Currently, the RTA's main objective is to upgrade the transport infrastructure as a whole," he says.

"The metro will serve as a key connector linking to Dubai International Airport. Provision for park and ride facilities near the terminals and at strategic locations along the railway route will also promote the use of the metro."

The five-carriage metro trains can carry a maximum of 1017 passengers each, and can run with 90 second intervals at peak travel times.

All stops have been pulled out to ensure the metro is running on time. Despite the urgency, the project has maintained a good safety record. A safety consultant engaged on the project told us:

"We have a record of 1.14 lost time accidents (an accident that causes the worker to be absent for four days) per million man hours."

To put this in perspective, Heathrow Airport's Terminal 5 project in the UK suffered three lost time accidents per million man hours. One lost time accident per million man hours is the desired ratio.

Despite this, the metro has, sadly, not been without its share of tragedy. Two construction fatalities have occurred, and there have been 18 "road fatalities," indirectly related to construction of the project.

In one such incident, the consultant said, 11 Thai workers who had flown in to work on the metro died after the bus that had collected them from the airport was involved in an accident.

Despite such setbacks, the project has continued to progress towards its eagerly awaited opening date.
 

Forty-seven stations are under construction. Each fits into one of four themes - earth, air, fire or water. Stations are one of three types - underground, ground level, or elevated. The most advanced in construction is Jebel Ali Industrial.

Built around the water theme, construction on the space-age structure began only nine months ago but it is already taking shape.

The nearby Jebel Ali depot will house a portion of the rolling stock. The system will make use of over 100 trains manufactured in Japan by Kinki Sharyo, and shipped to Dubai. Others will be stationed at Al Rashidya.

To follow the red and green lines, two further lines - blue and purple - are currently being planned, which will link the under construction Al Maktoum International Airport with Dubai International Airport along differing routes.

Upon completion of the third and fourth lines, scheduled for 2020, the RTA hope to be transporting 1.8 million passengers daily across Dubai - more than the current population.

In March it was announced that UK-based Serco had been awarded the operation and maintenance contract for the Metro's first 10 years. By such time, the residents of Dubai will be hoping that congestion on the roads has become merely a bad memory.

Al Hammadi says that Dubai Metro will "compare favourably" to global models including Singapore and Hong Kong.

He appears to have done his sums. "Introduction of the metro will help reduce the traffic congestion by 17%," he assures us.

It took us a little over three hours to view the project. The same amount of time it took the taxi driver to get from Dubai to Sharjah at rush hour the previous day.

Dubai Metro must be on time. As the omnipresent sign says: "Failure is not an option."

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