MENA to spend $200bn on rail and metro projects

From Africa’s first high speed rail network in Morocco to Oman’s first ever rail scheme, billions of dollars are being invested in rail and metro projects

Over $200bn worth of rail and metro projects are either planned or under way in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region, translating into more than 33,700-km of mainline routes and 3,000-km of new metro lines.

From North Africa’s first high-speed rail network in Morocco to Oman’s first ever rail scheme, billions of dollars are being invested in rail and metro projects for the first time. In fact, the award of major metro and rail contracts has made the region a significant source of new work for the global rail industry.

“The Middle East is perhaps the fastest growing market for rail and transit in the world,” said Cosema Crawford, senior vice president and rail and transit global practice leader at Louis Berger. “Cities are growing and mobility is increasing, driving the need for robust public transportation networks.”

Crawford will speak about high-speed rail at the 10th annual MEED MENA Rail & Metro Summit in Dubai this month. Though seen in the Middle East as an innovation, high-speed rail has an extensive history, especially in East Asia. Currently, China accounts for 50% of the world’s high-speed rail network.

“Japan is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Shinkansen this year and is developing the next generation of Maglev trains which will travel at a speed of 500km an hour between Tokyo and Osaka,” said Crawford. “Louis Berger is involved in bringing the same technology to the United States, providing one hour service from Washington DC to New York.”

Crawford believes that demand for high-speed rail solutions will continue to increase. “High-speed rail popularity will grow as a better and significantly greener alternative to air and car travel,” she said. “As confidence grows in ridership and revenue figures, Public Private Partnership (PPP) opportunities will develop as well.”

The GCC’s first high-speed railway is the 450-km Haramain High Speed Rail project that links Jeddah with Rabigh, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and is scheduled to open in 2015. Due to open the same year is Morocco’s TGV network from Tangiers to Casablanca, marking the first ever deployment of high-speed rail technology on the African continent.

“As traffic congestion continues to grow, public transportation networks become essential, including intercity travel on high-speed rail,” said Crawford. “High-speed rail is ultimately an instrument for development, and the costs for implementation should be considered and financed in that light.

They are dependent on good local public transportation networks to take riders to their final destinations. Most importantly, there needs to be a cultural shift to accept public transportation systems. Seasonal high temperatures and lack of pedestrian infrastructure need to be addressed in the design of the stations.”

However, engineering challenges, some specific to the region, could also pose a challenge.

“High-speed rail requires straight alignments in order to maintain speed,” explained Crawford. “Developed areas may have difficulty identifying suitable corridors, resulting in compromises on speed, substantial property takings, or extensive tunneling, with the latter two adding to the cost and schedule.

Also, true high-speed rail cannot co-exist with other rail modes on the same tracks, such as freight rail. In addition, special solutions are required to maintain the required level of track integrity over long distances of desert conditions with blowing sand.”

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