Interoperability the key challenge for Middle East railway projects, experts say

4128As investment in rail projects accelerates throughout the region – with at least some $167bn-worth of active future rail or metro projects planned and un-awarded in the Middle East, early action needs to be taken to ensure there is effective interoperability among the new railway systems of the Middle East, experts say.

After many years when rail infrastructure was neglected, the last decade has seen a boom in railway construction. Since 2000 just under $90bn-worth of rail and metro contracts has been awarded in the Middle East. By far the largest market is Saudi Arabia with some $44bn-worth of contracts. This is more than double the second largest market, Algeria, which sits on $17bn-worth, and the $13.8bn-worth of deals awarded in Qatar.

A record total $200bn worth of rail investment is planned in the Middle East and North Africa based on the pipeline of rail and metro projects under way in each country in the region, according to the latest data and research from MEED Projects, the online projects tracking service.

This equates to more than 33,700km of mainline routes and 3,000km of metro as the region prioritises the development of rail infrastructure as a means of alleviating congestion, improving access to more remote areas and diversifying the economy.

Saudi Arabia is also the largest rail market in terms of future projects. Thanks to giant projects such as the Mecca and Jeddah metros, the Saudi Landbridge and the planned cross-country networks, the kingdom will offer billions of dollars-worth of future projects. Qatar, Egypt and the UAE are the next largest future markets. The latter has the Abu Dhabi metro and the second phase of the Etihad Rail schemes as well as the extensions of the Dubai metro.

In Qatar, there are still several contracts to be awarded on the Doha metro in addition to the main packages on the long-distance passenger and freight networks. And in Egypt, there are long-held plans to develop lines 4-6 of the Cairo metro together with high-speed networks from the north to the south of the country.

The massive opportunities that the MENA region presents for contractors, consultants and suppliers alike, will be detailed at the forthcoming 10th MEED MENA Rail & Metro Conference next month, to be held at The Conrad Hotel in Dubai.

“Our target is to look to interoperability in the whole region and to make our railways operate across the whole system,” says Vasile Nicolae Olievschi, railway adviser, National Transport Authority (NTA) of the UAE. “We also need to have the operational structure that will fit together.”

Olievschi will participate in the regulation and standardisation panel session during the conference’s first day on 21 October. Others on the panel include Philippe Citroen, director general of the Association of the European Rail Industry and Chris Dulake, chief engineer of Crossrail of the UK. The 73 mile-long Crossrail project under construction in London is due for completion in 2018. It is one of the largest and most complex railway projects in Europe.

The panellists will tell the conference that the lack of interoperability is one of the largest challenges planners of Middle East railway projects need to address.

“I want to expand about the risk of lack of interoperability if we don’t work together,” says Olievschi. “The aim is to achieve interoperability in the way Europe and the US has done. We have a better chance of getting this right because we are starting from scratch.”

“The procurement of the fixed assets and rolling stock needed for the GCC railway, which is due to start operating in 2018, and key metro systems is proceeding,” says MEED Events chairman Edmund O’Sullivan. “Minds are now turning to the challenge of making sure what is being built operates efficiently. Cross-border collaboration including ensuring compatible signaling systems will save the region hundreds of millions of dollars and that is why this issue will be at the top of the agenda of this year’s MEED MENA Rail & Metro Conference.”

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