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Will GCC Rail ever be completed?

The GCC Railway Network may be facing delays but the region is pushing ahead with domestic rail projects

Etihad Rail suspended tenders for Stage 2 of the UAE’s national railway network in January 2016.
Etihad Rail suspended tenders for Stage 2 of the UAE’s national railway network in January 2016.

Rail projects are big business in the Middle East and North Africa. Key railway developments worth $352bn, ranging from city-centric metro systems to national rail infrastructures, are currently planned and underway across the region.

The $15.4bn GCC Railway Network, most recently slated for completion in 2018, represents the collective realisation for many of these projects. Spanning 2,117km, this mammoth system has been designed to link the domestic rail infrastructures of all six GCC countries.

But the pan-GCC rail initiative has faced challenges of late. The low oil price, which continues to hamper progress across the majority of the region’s construction segments, has led local governments to reconsider their short-term budgetary priorities.

It was within this context that Etihad Rail, the government-backed firm overseeing the development of the UAE’s national railway infrastructure, suspended Stage 2 tenders in January 2015. The organisation stated that it would use this hiatus to review its investment, and examine the timing and delivery of the development’s second phase.

Three weeks later, reports emerged that Oman was reconsidering its efforts in relation to the GCC Railway Network. The Sultanate said that in light of regional uncertainty, it would concentrate on national rail activities rather than the slated connection to its neighbouring UAE.

The exact pace at which the GCC Railway Network will progress remains unclear. What appears altogether more certain is that it will miss its 2018 completion deadline.

In comments made to Construction Week at a pre-event press conference for Middle East Rail 2016, HE Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi, the UAE’s Minister of Public Works and chairman of the Federal Transport Authority (FTA), questioned the feasibility of the GCC Railway Network’s current target for completion.

“We know that 2018 is not realistic,” he commented. “The ministerial counterparts of all the Gulf countries met in Doha in late 2015 to rethink the timetable. We’ve asked all of them to come up with a realistic programme,” he revealed.

HE Dr Al Nuaimi went on to point out that an updated schedule had not yet been finalised. He did not proffer a more realistic completion date, and declined to state his opinion as to whether the GCC Railway Network would be seen through to completion.

Yet despite challenges on the pan-GCC stage, plenty of rail-related activity is taking place at the domestic level.

Speaking to Construction Week at Middle East Rail 2016, John Lesniewski, chief commercial officer of Oman Rail, admitted that the Sultanate was still awaiting an update with regards the probable delay period of the GCC Railway Network. Nevertheless, he emphasised that Oman would continue to push ahead with the development of its national railway infrastructure.

“Our minister has decided that Oman needs to continue to develop its railway, and we have other sections of the track that might be suitable for development; to transport minerals or oilfield products, for example,” Lesniewski commented.

“Just because the GCC Railway Network has been delayed a little bit, [Oman Rail] is not going to stop working.”

Lesniewski noted that by supplementing Oman’s road haulage sector, such lines would serve to increase export capacity at the Sultanate’s ports. “We really consider the railroad a nation builder,” he added.

Although new lines would offer numerous strategic benefits to Oman, Lesniewski was keen to point out that details of such developments have not yet been confirmed.

“We’re just getting started,” he said. “We’re working with the mineral development authority in Oman to identify where the reserves are. It’s important to understand who holds the concessions and who the end users of these products are.”

Encouragingly, GCC rail projects are not limited to the GCC Railway Network’s desert trailblazers. Industry experts are also working to augment a selection of the region’s most populous cities with metro systems.

At a cost of $23bn (SAR86.2bn), Riyadh Metro is currently the largest under-construction public transit system in the world. Like the GCC Railway Network, Riyadh Metro is scheduled to complete in 2018, but unlike its region-wide counterpart, the Saudi Arabian project is on course to hit its deadline.

Once finished, Riyadh Metro will boast a total of six lines. The project is being developed across three packages by three consortia: BACS, ANM, and FAST.

BACS – which comprises Bechtel, Almabani General Contractors, Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), and Siemens – is responsible for Lines 1 and 2 under Package 1. Package 2 is being conducted by the Salini Impregilo-led ANM consortium, and involves the construction of Line 3. FAST – which consists of FCC, Freyssinet Saudi Arabia, Alstrom, Atkins, Samsung C&T, Setec, Strukton, and Typsa – is building Lines 4, 5, and 6 as part of Package 3.

Overseeing this hugely ambitious project is Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA), the organisational, planning, executive, and coordinating body responsible for the development of Saudi Arabia’s capital city.

ADA’s Eng Anas Hamad Almousa is project manager for Package 2, Line 3 – Riyadh Metro’s longest line at 41km. He explained that although challenging, the collaborative nature of his team’s relationship with the ANM consortium is facilitating progress.

“Basically, we are trying to work as a team: the contractors, the engineers, the consultants, and us [ADA] as the employer,” he told Construction Week. “We assist with day-to-day activities and push the contractors to meet the project’s schedule.”

Almousa and his colleagues began construction activities for Package 3 in October 2013. Although this portion of the project has not yet reached its half-way stage, ADA’s project manager believes that his team’s biggest challenges have already been overcome.

“So far, we have completed approximately 30% of our work,” he explained. “At the beginning, it’s always difficult. During the first year, we focused mainly on the design of the project. The second year involved development of the utilities infrastructure. These were the main challenges.

“[Package 2] is now in our hands. [ADA] can push the contractor; we can increase the resources; we can do anything to avoid any delays,” Almousa added.

The good news for Riyadh Metro is that it remains a priority for the Saudi Arabian government, in spite of the low oil price.

“Until now, from the perspective of ADA’s project management team, it hasn’t affected anything. We haven’t been instructed [to veer from the original plan]. The contractor is fine and we are moving forward as planned. It’s been business as usual.”

Meanwhile, neighbouring Qatar is making significant headway with its own public transit system. Scheduled to open before the end of 2019, Doha Metro will boast four lines, and will form part of the country’s national railway network.

When it comes to infrastructure projects of this magnitude, it can sometimes be tempting to keep things simple. However, developer Qatar Rail’s ambition extends all the way from the overall scale of the project down to its finest details.

Interchange terminals Msheireb Station and Education City Station, for instance, are being built as part of the Doha Metro Major Stations Package. In 2014, the consortium responsible for the delivery of the package – a joint venture (JV) comprising Samsung C&T, OHL, and Qatar Building Company (QBC) – awarded Germany-headquartered Peri with contracts to provide formwork for both stations.

Commenting on project challenges, Dr Jean-Francois Trottier, Peri Qatar’s managing director, explained: “The station is 330m long and 29m wide. The walls here can only be made with formwork because they are 1.5m thick and extend to an impressive 9m in height. Alternative methods such as precast concrete were out of the question as we also had to consider the finishing.”

Miguel Colomer Herrero, OHL’s senior construction engineer for the stations, agrees with Dr Trottier’s assessment. “After extensive study of the project, the JV decided to cast in one pour, as the client’s requirements dictated this option,” he recounted. “The surface finish has to be exceptionally smooth, and this would not have been possible in more than one pour as a seam between the two cycles would have been created. Also, this project is expected to be here for about 120 years; one pour ensures durability and the best results for waterproofing.”

But far from overwhelming stakeholders, the scale and complexity of Doha Metro’s components appear to be encouraging those tasked with their construction. “When you have this type of project, whilst it has its challenges, it brings new life and energy to the people working on it,” commented Dr Trottier.

Of course, the ultimate goal is for city-based systems and national rail developments to link together as part of the GCC Railway Network. But in light of recent uncertainty, the question on the region’s lips is whether these domestic rail projects will ever achieve their full, interconnected potential. Fortunately, the common consensus, it seems, is that they will.

Parsons provided project management services for Stage 1 of the UAE’s Etihad Rail. William C “Bill”’ Bodie, the firm’s executive vice president, told Construction Week that he expects work on the project to continue – albeit at a slower pace than initially anticipated.

“The way I see it, our Etihad Rail customers are quite sensibly trying to evaluate the most efficacious plan to complete this part of [the GCC Railway Network], given their resources and forecasts for future resources,” said Bodie.

“What Parsons has tried to do is to explain to Etihad Rail that we understand how to adjust programmes. We know how to grow them, but we also know how to keep a lower level of activity going on a project without turning it into cold storage – which risks incurring all sorts of inefficiencies and added costs when it does eventually restart.

“I do believe there will be a Stage 2 for this project, and I also believe that the entities best placed to help Etihad Rail will be those that not only think through the challenges, but also the options for keeping the programme on a healthy glide path,” Bodie added.

Oman Rail’s Lesniewski concedes that the region-wide rail initiative is likely to face delays. “The GCC Railway Network is not being connected right now,” he noted. “Basically, [there is] a little bit of a delay period. Oman Rail [cannot] connect to a connection that doesn’t exist just yet.”

Nevertheless, Oman Rail’s CCO reiterated that he is in no doubt over the long-term feasibility of the GCC Railway Network.

“I know that Etihad Rail still holds [a GCC-wide network] as its dream,” he said. “I work with the people in Saudi Arabia all the time, and they feel the same way.

“The [GCC] rail industry is there. There are just unfortunate physical and financial circumstances at the moment that are slowing things down.

“I think the delay will be adjusted, and [the GCC Railway Network] is going to go forward,” Lesniewski concluded.

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