Dubai: Getting on Track

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    Dubai’s transport sector is about to enter a new era, with the launch of the initial stage of the world’s largest fully automated metro system scheduled for early September.

    The first phase of the network, the Red Line, consists of 52 km of track, linking 29 stations, and will begin a limited service on September 9, with the second stage, the 18-station Green Line, scheduled to start running in March 2010. There are also plans being drafted for an additional two lines – Purple and Blue – though work on these will be held off pending further studies on growth trends and transport requirements.

    At optimum levels, the initial metro link will be able to carry 23,000 passengers in each direction every hour, a figure set to expand as further services come on-line.

    To maximise the usage of the metro, the RTA (Roads and Transport Authority) is reconfiguring its public bus routes and timetables to provide easy feeder services to the metro’s stations, and has re-equipped its bus fleet with new vehicles to increase passenger comfort and appeal.

    The project has a well-publicised budget of $4bn, though senior officials have acknowledged there has been a cost overrun. This is in large part due in part to extensive changes to the planned design and facilities required to meet the growing needs of Dubai, RTA board chairman and executive director Mattar Al Tayer said in an interview with the daily Gulf News in mid-August.

    Though well over budget, Al Tayer said the metro would be value for money.

    “Take a ride once or twice on the metro and you will get used to it because it is the best metro system in the world,” he said.

    However, the new centrepiece of Dubai’s mass transit system has had its fair share of problems in the lead up to its opening. The project was completed in four and a half years, far quicker than comparable transit systems elsewhere, though this tight timeframe has caused difficulties. While the launch of the new transit system will be a gala event, the opening will not be all that was promised, with as few as nine of the network’s 29 stations expected to be ready for service on September 9.

    Such has been the rush to get even these stations completed that contractors have had to breach Dubai’s building laws, which mandate no outdoors construction work be carried out between the hours of 12.30-3.00pm in the summer months.

    There have also been media reports of technical problems, with difficulties over some of the software needed to operate the fully automated system and delays with handing over some of the stations to Serco, the British firm that will manage the network.

    However, the biggest issue that the metro will have to contend with is Dubai’s love affair with the automobile. Many in the emirate are more accustomed to private transport than public, resulting in heavy traffic congestion in and around the city centre, as well as high levels of pollution and competition for limited parking spaces.

    Currently, just 6% of Dubai’s 2.2m population use public transport, according to the RTA, a figure it hopes to increase to 30% by 2020, with half of that total carried by the new rail network.

    The RTA is planning a massive promotion campaign to encourage the public to leave their cars at home and ride the rails, touting the network’s ease, convenience and cost effectiveness.

    More than just a people mover, the Dubai metro Loading... has been designed as a mover of the emirate’s economy. With some estimates putting the cost of time lost due to traffic congestion at Dh4.5bn ($1.2bn) annually, the metro could pay for itself in a few years.

    Among those looking to reap the rewards are Dubai’s retailers. According to Eisa Ibrahim, the general manager of the BurJuman shopping centre, the metro will have a major impact on the emirate’s malls.

    “It will bring in huge numbers through its stations,” Ibrahim told local media on August 28. “In addition, the ease on traffic will also help a lot more people come through with their cars. We see a very positive benefit to all the malls either connected to or located close to the stations.”

    Some sectors are less sure what the short-term impact will be, adopting a wait-and-see attitude. One such industry is the real estate sector, which is expecting a rise in property prices but is still uncertain about how the metro will affect both commercial and residential clusters.

    According to Jesse Downs, the director of research and advisory services at Landmark Advisory, the market is still unclear about metro-usage patterns at the outset and how these will evolve over time.

    “On average, I could imagine a 5-10% average premium developing in areas around stations over the first one or two years of operation,” he said in an interview with local press in late August. “Of course, the actual premium will depend on the residential location and specifics of the development and individual building.?? For commuters, the office location will be a critical factor.”

    Some doubt that the metro will provide value for money, given that few such transit systems turn a profit. These concerns are in part based on Dubai’s relatively small population and the propensity of locals and expatriates to rely on private means of transport.

    Though possibly not a money spinner, others such as Richard Anderson, of the Imperial College’s railway and transport strategy centre in London, believe the metro offers Dubai a value far beyond monetary terms.

    “The main benefit of a metro system is that it allows a city to be more cost effective. It increases productivity in a way that is not easily quantified, and helps it support a sustainable lifestyle,” Anderson said in an interview with The National on August 27. “It is hard to put a price on those benefits.”

    Time will tell if the Dubai metro will allow the city to be more cost effective. For it to do so, the RTA will need to convince potential passengers of the efficiency of the service, and wean them away from their addiction to the automobile.www.zawya.com

    © Oxford Business Group 2009

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