Car-crazy Dubai gears up for Gulf's 1st metro

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    By Ali Khalil       www.business.maktoob.com

    Dubai launches next week the first metro network in the Arab Gulf region but it remains to be seen whether motorists in the congested city state, where petrol is subsidised, will be won over.

    The first line of a two-line luxury, driverless, automated metro system is set to open for business on Wednesday, but transport authorities now say only 10 of its 29 stations will be ready for the symbolic date of 09/09/09.

    The challenge will now be to lure motorists enamoured with their petrol-guzzling cars to leave them behind and ride the metro in a city where traffic jams have always been a nightmare for road authorities.

    There are more than one million vehicles registered in Dubai, with cars and buses accounting for some 88 percent of the total, according to the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA).

    This represents a car for nearly every two residents in Dubai, which is home to almost 1.6 million people – mostly expatriates, according to official figures and more than two million according to estimates.

    Petrol is also subsidised across the oil-rich United Arab Emirates and, until recently, car loans were easy to obtain.

    “Dubai Metro aims to ease traffic congestion and reduce travelling time, which in effect will reduce air pollution caused by cars and improve air quality,” RTA said in a statement.

    But none of these issues seem of any concern to Emirati banker Saeed Ali, who is not ready to give up his 4X4 for the fancy blue metro trains which are already pacing the mostly elevated tracks in preparation.

    “I don’t think that I’ll use tehe metro… I prefer to use my car,” said the 24-year-old, although there is a metro station near his house and another near his office.

    “There are many things in our life that we would need to abandon if environmental concerns were to be taken in consideration, not just cars,” said Ali.

    He said it takes him 20 minutes to get to work and prefers that to having to cope with crowds waiting to ride the metro.

    Several expatriate car owners agreed that driving is more convenient and comfortable than having to walk to and from metro stations in Dubai, which can be miserable most of the year due to high levels of heat and humidity.

    But many low-paid expatriates who rely on public transport or car-pooling, are ecstatic about the metro and cannot wait to enjoy the ride.

    “Definitely, I will use the metro” said Bilal Ahmed, a 29-year-old Pakistani salesman who rides the bus to move around town.

    “Time is very important for our business. Buses are always late and we have to wait for hours for an empty one to come,” he said.

    Ahmed spends 4.50 dirhams ($1.2 dollars) to travel by bus some 25 km from central Dubai to the Jebel Ali industrial zone.

    The RTA says that metro fares will be affordable for everyone. A trip from one end of the 52-kilometre (32 mile) Red Line to the other will cost 5.80 dirhams.

    The Red Line – which will be followed by a Green Line when the metro system is completed — will run from near Dubai Airport to Jebel Ali, the region’s largest port and free zone area.

    “It will be easier to get to work,” said Rahul Sharma, 32, an Indian salesman at a jewelry shop who car-pools with 24 other people, and spends 250 dirhams on transportation per month.

    “We are ready to pay more for the train if it would save us time,” said Sharma, adding that it currently takes him 90-minutes to cover 30 km to get to work each morning.

    Most of the time is wasted picking up the other members of the car-pool, he said.

    Dubai began building the metro network in 2005 after awarding the project to a consortium led by Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The metro will be operated and maintained by UK support services firm Serco.

    But the building cost has nearly doubled from an initial 16 billion dirhams to 28 billion dirhams, the RTA said on Sunday.

    RTA chief Mattar al-Tayer said the surge in cost was due to modifications to the original plan, which included extending the route and adding on new stations.

    The project is financially “guaranteed by the Dubai government,” Tayer said and the authorities have raised cash by allowing private sector enterprises to name many stations, with 490 million dollars secured so far.

    Dubai has been struggling with mounting debt as a result of the global financial crisis that brought years of economic growth to a halt.

    The remainder of the stations on the Red Line will open by February while the 23-km Green Line, which has 18 stations and was scheduled to open in spring 2010, will now open in the summer of 2010.

    The Dubai Metro appears to simulate the emirate’s passion for luxury.

    Golden shell-shaped stations were designed to evoke a Gulf tradition of pearl diving, while all window-covered walkways leading to the stations are air-conditioned.

    Each train has a first-class coach – not a common treat in metro networks.

    Other oil-rich Gulf countries have meanwhile announced plans to build passenger railways, including the vast desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia which has plans for a 444-km high-speed railroad linking the two Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina through the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

    The Saudis are also building a 20-km driverless monorail system in Mecca, to shuttle pilgrims to holy sites and alleviate congestion during the annual hajj pilgrimage.

    Saudi Arabia is the only Gulf Arab country to currently have a rail link, with a 450-km route between Riyadh and Dammam, in the Eastern Province.

    The Gulf Cooperation Council is meanwhile still studying a plan to build a rail network connecting its six members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.