Running out of steam

By Sami Halabi

A lack of a unified vision leaves an inter-GCC railway standing in the station

Right now the old Hejaz Railway looks far from being eclipsed as the Middle East's most famous railway

Of the five pillars of Islam, making the pilgrimage to Mecca was perhaps the most testing for those who lived in the time before planes and cars. Each bodily able Muslim who sought to enter heaven would trek through the sands of the Arabian Peninsula by camel caravan, braving the scorching summer sun or the freezing winter nights; from Damascus, this pilgrimage could take two months.  Then, in 1864, at the height of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab world’s Turkish masters proposed a grand idea. A waqf, or sacred Islamic donation, would be opened to all Muslims of the world to fund the Hejaz Railway, which would extend from Damascus to Mecca and allow travelers to make the trip in four days, and for less than 10 percent of the price.  Fast-forward to today, and the thoughts of current Arab rulers are on the same track as their northern predecessors. The Gulf Cooperation Council has decided that they will build a joint railway to link their countries. While the advantages of such a scheme would be enormous, especially in the commercial sense as the project is envisioned to be a cargo route first and a passenger route second, deciding that something should be done and actually doing it are proving to be very different matters.

Hard to decide

Planning for the railway began to gain steam in 2004, when the GCC Technical Committee’s (GCCTC) transport department, the body overseeing the project at the regional level, commissioned a preliminary study carried out by the American firm Parksons Brinkerhoff and the Kuwait-based Global Investment House. The study eventually proposed two routes for the project. The first would have run from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, connect to Qatar via a new bridge over the water, then reach the United Arab Emirates and Oman. The second route ran from Kuwait to Oman overland and through Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, with a connecting track to Qatar and Bahrain; the latter plan eventually won out.

In February 2007, a consortium led by Systra of France, Khatib and Alami of Lebanon and Canrail of Canada was asked to perform a feasibility study covering topographical and statistical data, integration, financing and development options, legal models, as well as passenger and freight configurations.

The study, described as an “economic feasibility study” by a source who is part of the consortium and spoke on condition of anonymity, did not cover the potential problems that could ensue from the fact that every nation, which would be designing, funding, and implementing their own part of the project, also had the right to change specifications in its own territory.

“It was the case that the design would be done under the supervision of the GCC, but now the countries are seeking to design their own respective projects,” says Ibrahim al-Sbeiteh, director of transport at the GCCTC.

This is not the only issue that has led some to question the project’s feasibility.

“The multiple delays that we are seeing right now in the GCC rail network are probably also due to some liquidity problems that are down to the [financial] crisis,” says Philippe Dauba-Pantanacce, senior economist on the Middle East and North Africa at Standard Chartered investment bank.

The freedom to delay

Unlike the Ottomans, who had the luxury of administrative control over the entire area of the Hejaz, the authority of each country over their segment of track and the fractious nature of GCC decision making has made progress less than steady. Since the feasibility study was completed and approved by the GCC in December 2008, little headway has been made and divisions have begun to appear in other areas.

For example, the Gulf countries have still not implemented the common customs union that was agreed in 2003. Meanwhile, the prospect of a GCC monetary union that has been in the works for more than a decade was dealt a severe blow last year when the UAE decided to pull out, ostensibly angered when the council decided to host the Gulf central bank in Riyadh instead of the Emirates. Oman decided not to commit back in 2006.

“As we have seen in the GCC monetary union project, there are a lot of political hurdles within the GCC that constitute barriers to progress in these projects,” says Dauba-Pantanacce.

So, if track record is anything to go by, the planned completion time of 2017 may be little more than a chimera. The source on the consortium said the current completion date in 2017 would be pushed back. Construction was slated to start this year, but the project is still in the engineering design phase and, according to Zawya, companies are only expected to be prequalified for contracts this September, with detailed design contracts to be awarded in December during the GCC summit in Abu Dhabi.

The devil is in the details

In order for detailed design contracts to be awarded however, each country will still have to decide on the route that the track will take through their respective territories. Except for Saudi Arabia, which has already started its own national railway development, GCC states have yet to define the parameters of their respective railway segments.

A further cause of concern is the status of the world’s longest marine causeway between Bahrain and Qatar, which is jointly funded by both nations. In June, Reuters reported that the 40-kilometer, $3 billion project had been suspended “amid escalating costs and increased political tension,” with a sizable portion of that extra cost due to the decision to fit the causeway with a railway as part of the GCC common rail project.

The report was later denied by the assistant undersecretary for financial affairs at Bahrain’s Ministry of Finance and chairman of the Qatar-Bahrain Causeway Foundation, but such complications do little to inspire confidence.

Diesel or gas: fuelling the divide

Because the railway was envisioned as more of a freight project than a passenger one, the speed and volume at which goods can be moved through countries is of utmost importance to the eventual linkage and completion of the project.

According to the consortium source, the $25 billion estimated cost was based on a diesel powered standard speed across the railway. But the newest proposals by Qatar and Oman to opt for an electric line could throw a spanner in the works and bring the project back to the drawing board.

The shift is significant because of several factors. Despite sitting on some 23 percent of the world’s know gas reserves, the GCC, with the exception of Qatar, is facing a gas shortage due to rising demand primarily associated with power generation. Qatar opting to run an electric train is precisely the kind of wildcard that could see the project’s financial and technical scope become increasingly more complex to implement, not to mention the political tensions such a move would stoke.

“They [GCC nations] will have some difficult tasks to resolve, mainly on the processes, the support, the interoperability, and potentially on investment priorities. Interoperability will be the most important thing to agree on, at the GCC level,” says Ulrich Koegler, partner and member of the leadership team for Booz & Company’s Middle East transport and infrastructure practice.

“If you don’t have interoperability, at the end of the day you have truncated networks,” adds Koegler.

That prospect would also entail some costly fixes in order to accommodate a common network that meshes with individual country needs. Ostensibly, the reason Qatar and Oman need electric trains is because they are more interested than the other countries in the high speed passenger oriented options that such trains offer.

The economic feasibility study which was approved by the GCC was prepared on the basis of a speed of 200 kilometers per hour, which is around about the maximum speed possible with a diesel-powered train. Anything above that will require electric power. And the faster you go, the more you pay.

Speed or strength

The hitch is that ‘double stacking’ — the rail industry term for having two containers stacked on top of each other as opposed to one — is not possible on electric trains. Since the project was only deemed viable because of its economic advantages relating to freight, the use of electric trains throws the entire economic feasibility of the project into question.

Possible solutions to this issue include switching trains and containers at stations, or building separate tracks to accommodate for high-speed electric trains that would be used for passenger transport; the former would add significantly to time spent passing between stations on opposite sides of a border, while the latter would entail considerably higher costs. “The most important thing for us at the GCC project is that the specifications are the same and the timing is agreed upon — that’s all,” says Sbeiteh. “The tendency now is that the GCC line will be diesel with the exception of Oman and Qatar. The Qataris are envisioning that they will need another track for diesel.” The increased expense of the double-track plan could cause total costs to mushroom and threaten the overall scheme’s completion.

“Do we want to first put more money in a common railway system instead of, for instance, diversifying our economy?” asks Standard Chartered’s Dauba-Pantanacce.

Paying for it all

Ultimately, without a concrete cost figure, governments in the region will be hard pressed to allocate large amounts of money to projects that are contingent on others doing the same, though if the regional railway is to work at all, they will have to do just that.

“Rail is a massive investment and you will find very few companies willing to fund it, even if there is a subsidy or [service] availability model over many years because the amount of uncertainly… is transferred to the private sector,” says Fares Saade, principal with Booz & Company and member of their transport, engineering, and services practice.

The liquidity situation is also not homogenous across the region. Saudi Arabia is still flush with liquidity and knows that it will have to put up the lion’s share of the cash, according to Koegler.

Foreign funds

Countries with tighter liquidity conditions, such as the UAE, may consider offers such as the one made in June by the International and Commercial Bank of China, in conjunction with Beijing’s railways ministry, to offer financing, export credit and advisory services to the UAE. It now seems likely that they may use this option, as the UAE National Transport Authority and the Chinese government signed a memorandum of understanding to develop technical and regulatory aspects of the country’s railway in May.

Qatar has also signed a joint venture with Deutsche Bahn International to form the Qatar Railways Development Company (QRDC), which boasts initial capital holdings of $25 billion and constitutes the largest offshore commercial deal for the German railway giant. The Qatari government will own 51 percent of the company through Qatari Diar.

Kuwait seems to be the only country in the region that will opt for public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements, after starting an office to begin tending for such projects, says Koegler. “A rail system will have low or negative returns if you don’t take the socioeconomic benefits into account; and of course private players cannot play on socioeconomic benefits,” he concludes.

Then there is always the option of another waqf, but unlike the Ottoman attempt to fund its rail, this one might carry interest.

“If they don’t finance it through a direct injection of money and they go through issuing bonds, I think that would be creatively the most appropriate way to do it,” says Dauba-Pantanacce. “Having longer-term bonds in line with long-term cash generation projects like a railway is the most sound, recognized and applied methodology that we have seen elsewhere.”

Getting people to use it

Even if the technical, financial and political hurdles are overcome, the challenge of getting people out of their cars and onto the train will be a formidable one. Today, the only piece of mass overland transit in the GCC, the Dubai Metro, is still eerily empty for most of the day.

“There will definitely be a cultural reluctance from the local population to heavily use public transportation to make a long distance trip [of] more than two hours, because they have not been used to that,” predicts Dauba-Pantanacce.

Without the religious allure of the Hejaz railway’s final destination (which it never reached, getting only as far as Medina), a passenger element to the GCC railway will be little more than a convenient ‘add-on’ to the cargo element. But like the Hejaz, time and money will be the defining factor of how successful the project is.

It took the Turks and the rest of the Muslim world 44 years to build their most famous railway. The question is: how long will it take the Arabs to agree to do the same?

First published in Executive Magazine’s July 2010 issue

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