Railway plans gather steam

Preparations for the Batinah Railway Project, which will be ultimately linked to the transnational GCC railway network, is on track

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Travelling to Dubai will no longer mean waiting in long queues at the airport immigration counters once the proposed railway network becomes a reality a few years from now.

The GCC states have taken a collective initiative to build a transnational railway network, complete with high-speed passenger trains.

Once operational, a commuter from the sultanate will take only a little over two hours to reach neighbouring Dubai by rail. The railway project, which is expected to bind the region both economically and politically, is at different stages of planning and implementation in the various Gulf states. Oman has already awarded the feasibility study contract to a consortium of France-based Systra Consulting and Oman-based National Engineering Office (NEO).

The consortium is expected to start the feasibility study immediately after completion of the process of registration of the foreign company Systra in Oman," says Salim Mohammed al Afani, director general, physical planning, the Supreme Committee for Town Planning (SCTP), which is overseeing the project.

The approximately 260km-long railway line, called the Batinah Railway Project, will connect Halban Road near Naseem roundabout with the UAE border of Shinas near Khatmat Malaha. "The exact length of the line and the required investment will be known only after the completion of the study," al Afani adds.

Meanwhile, a senior official of the local consultancy agency divulges that the railway line is likely to run parallel to the proposed Batinah Expressway. The official, who did not want to be named, adds, "The capital expenditure for the project will depend on which route we decide upon."

The scope of the feasibility study is to prepare a conceptual design, including traffic forecast, speed for passenger and freight traffic, conceptual operation schedule, track alignment, the pros and cons of a single and double track, locations and number of terminals and marshalling yard facilities.

The study will also look into aspects like electrification, signalling and telecommunication systems, fencing, environmental impact, hydrological and geotechnical data and bridges/culverts.

The consultants will look at the feasibility of a possible extension of the Batinah network to Duqm and Salalah. The study is expected to be ready in four months, the official says. Once the Systra-NEO consortium submits its report, another consultant will be appointed for designing the route.

Al Afani points out that although the railway line is planned for both passenger and cargo traffic, there is no rail link to Muscat as per the current proposal. This may delay the introduction of passenger services. However, he points out that they are proceeding with an eye on the future. "The railway network is designed for the long-term traffic demand of passengers." Al Afani says despite the difficult topography to be tackled, the railway line seems possible. "The challenges will be known after the completion of the study."

The Batinah Railway Project will event-ually be integrated with the proposed pan-GCC railway network that will connect Salalah on Oman's southern coast with Kuwait's border with Iraq.

In fact, the GCC-wide railway has been a dream for many years. But now the project is moving forward, clearly indicating the determination of member states.

GCC leaders, who met in Muscat in December 2008, had given a preliminary approval for the US$14bn project, which will link Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE. A consortium comprising Systra, Canarail of Canada and Lebanese consultant Khatib & Alarni conducted the feasibility study of the 2000-km venture.

As per the understanding, each state will pay for its section of the rail network. A GCC Transport Ministers Committee has been formed to oversee the feasibility studies related to the railway network and come up with recommendations.

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"As per the study report on the GCC railway network, operations are expected to start in 2016," says al Afani.

A railway network will bring down the current over-dependence on road and air transport in the region as trains provide a cheaper alternative, without compromising on speed or comfort. And movement of freight through trains is vital for continued industrial growth.

Railway, because of greater capacity, effectiveness and safety, will be much cheaper and more efficient compared to other means of transport.

The proposed railway system will diversify the means of transport, reduce overall transportation cost as well as adverse impact on the environment, improve competition and provide better connectivity with other GCC countries, says al Afani.

He adds, "It is believed that these benefits will work as a catalyst in speeding up the industrialisation of Oman, especially in the Batinah region."

The UAE has come up with a plan to link the entire country through a railway system called Trans-Emirates Rail Network even as the first phase of Dubai Metro is expected to start operations in September this year. The plan is to implement Trans-Emirates Railway Network in two phases - first for cargo traffic and later for passenger traffic.

Saudi Arabia, the only GCC state with a railway line (connecting Riyadh with Dammam), has already awarded several contracts to build the North-South Railway.

The North-South Railway, which will be ready by next year, is integral to the development of Saudi's planned phosphate and bauxite mining projects in the north, as it will link these with the processing plants and smelters on the Gulf coast.

Likewise, work on the 400km-long North-South Rail Link is expected to commence this year in Kuwait, while feasibility studies for a national railway network have already been completed in Bahrain.

Once completed the pan-GCC railway network will act as a 2000km artery connecting the six nations, boosting trade relations. This in turn is expected to work as a catalyst in the creation of the envisaged single trade block."

Railway plans gather steam
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