Just the ticket. The Metro, one year on


By Elizabeth Broomhal www.constructionweekonline.com

Launched on the ninth day of the ninth month of 2009 at 09:09pm, the Dubai Metro was the first mass urban transport system in the GCC and the Emirate’s biggest ever achievement in terms of infrastructure.

Showcasing Dubai as a world-class city, the Metro quite literally brought the Emirate and the Middle East construction industry up to speed with the rest of the globe, positioning Dubai as an international business hub and employing some of the most modern building techniques and materials ever used on a project of this kind.

But the Dubai Metro was more than just another infrastructure project. In true Dubai style, it stood out for being the world’s biggest, fully-automated driverless train, and for aiming to be the longest automated metro network service ever once the second line was finished. Meanwhile, and like a number of other state-of-the-art projects in Dubai, its architectural significance lay in its ability to reflect the Emirate’s unique identity and character – an individual and iconic appearance capturing the extreme climatic conditions of the region with the themes of earth, air, fire and water.

A year after the official opening of the Metro by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, and the big questions resonating across the GCC as more and more countries seek to follow Dubai’s lead are: How successful has the Metro been in achieving its aims? What has it done for Dubai? And what does the future hold for the region’s most modern transportation system?

Constructing the Dubai metro
Developed by the Dubai’s Road Transport Association (the RTA), the Metro was primarily launched to reduce traffic on the Emirate’s heavily congested roads, and to cater for an expanding population expected to reach 3 million by 2017.

A few years back, RTA board chairman and director Mattar Al Tayer announced that whilst the authority was working on road projects worth US $2.5 billion, road development was never going to be enough to solve Dubai’s traffic issues. “Experience has taught us that building roads alone does not solve congestion problems,” he said. “Transport must be operated as a complete system with integrated modes of transport such as bus, rail and water transport.”

Another reason for building the Metro was to propel the city of Dubai into the next league of global business hubs. Before the Metro, the heavily populated Middle Eastern metropolis, forever on the cusp of urban development, was competing with other international cities on almost every level except for transportation. Thus, there was a clear need for a mass urban transport system both to reflect the city’s growth and advancement during the previous decade and to bring Dubai onto a level playing field with its global competitors.

These factors in mind, it was not long before Mattar Al Tayer announced the launch of the Gulf’s first ever Light Rail Transit (LRT) project.

With the ultimate aim of allowing 100 trains to whisk 650 million passengers per annum to 56 stations along four separate lines by the year 2011, it was hoped that the Metro would reduce traffic on Dubai’s roads by as much as 17%, whilst heralding a new era for this fast-developing city.

Eager to deliver on promise, the RTA was as quick with contract awards as it was when deciding on development plans.

In 2004, as many as six hungry consortiums prequalified for the Metro’s main construction contract, and by May the following year, the AED 12.45 billion package for the first phase of the project was finally awarded to the Dubai Rail Link Consortium (DURL).

Consisting of four companies: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Corporation, Obayashi Corporation and Yapi Merkezi, the consortium was assigned with the task of building the first line, the 52.1km Red Line, between Jebel Ali Free Zone in the south of the Emirate and Rashidiya in the North, in just four and a half years.

Bearing in mind the increasingly-challenging transport conditions and the fast-rising population, as far as the RTA was concerned, there were no excuses for not meeting this deadline.

Of course, having had no intentions of failing, the RTA and DURL consortium did succeed in finishing the first phase of the project as scheduled, and on the Metro’s first day of operation, opened 10 stations along the Red Line at a total cost of US $7.6 billion.

Did it achieve its aims?
As with any major project in any developing city, over the course of the last year, there has been much speculation about whether or not the metro has achieved what it set out to accomplish, and whether or not the original plans for ongoing expansion will indeed go ahead after all. On the one hand, there can be no denying that there have been some issues.

Firstly, just 11 out of the 19 outstanding Red Line stations originally scheduled for hand over in February 2010 have been opened as planned. Meanwhile, the 22.5km Green Line, the Metro’s second line intended to link Dubai Airport Free Zone to Dubai Healthcare City, bringing the total amount of track on the Dubai metro to 74.6km, is also incomplete after originally being scheduled for handover in April 2010. Finally, an additional two lines – the Purple Line and the Blue Line – were put on hold last year after the global economic crisis quashed demand for the Metro’s services.

And yet, irrespective of these delays, the Metro’s success as a world-class piece of infrastructure continues to override any bad feeling – both in the Emirate of Dubai and across the GCC. From transport and economic experts, to contractors, commuters and taxi drivers, the general consensus is that the Metro has been one of the most successful projects to occur in Dubai, far surpassing the RTA’s original expectations.

“From an operations point of view, the Metro has been a great success which can be evidenced by the increasing number of customers utilising the service,” says Stephen Burke, director of VSL – a subcontractor on the project responsible for the superstructure works of 60km of bridging on both the Red Line and the Green Line. “It has successfully linked one end of Dubai with the other, giving the Emirate a cohesive feel by joining together the Old and the New Dubai.

“As well as being a great showcase for Dubai as a world class city, it is a super example of contemporary technology which will help stimulate the construction of other metros in the region.” He adds: “From a construction perspective, the authorities have set the bar high, demanding first class quality building and a state-of-the-art design which takes into account environmental and sustainability issues. This will pay off dividends in the future as the infrastructure maintenance costs will be minimised.”

Laith Haboubi, business development director from IBS Mapei, a supplier of construction adhesives and chemicals to the project, was also positive about the project’s success. “We are very proud to have been associated with this project, which certainly led the way not only in urban transport in the region, but also in terms of architecture and engineering with many processes and systems being used for the first time in this area.”

Aside from setting building examples and adding to Dubai’s incredible portfolio of construction projects, the Dubai Metro has also had an impact on Dubai’s economy. It is for this reason, according to the DIFC’s director of macroeconomics and statistics Dr. Fabio Scacciavillani, that the Metro’s biggest effects can be felt by real people in their everyday lives.

“The whole notion of a city is made up of a combination of human activities and economic activities, which work better when communication and transportation systems within the city work well. Thus, a good transportation system means that the whole economy of the city improves exponentially.”

Talking specifically about how the Dubai Metro has affected people’s lives, he continues: “The two key characteristics needed to ensure an urban transport system has a lasting impact are efficiency and cost. In that sense, I would say the Dubai Metro is at the top of the quality scale, because it is a very modern system, and very affordable when compared to the average income in the city. So, even people who are at the lower end of the pay scale can easily afford it.

Importantly,” he adds, “this means that people who live in densely populated areas or places where there are fewer jobs are able to travel quickly to areas far away from where they reside or to places where there are an abundance of jobs, respectively. This has been critical in diversifying the labour market in Dubai, and significant in helping the Emirate cope with the aftermath of the financial crisis by allowing the redeployment of human resources from places and sectors that have been badly affected, to those that haven’t.”

In addition, he explains how by freeing individuals from the confines of their residential areas, the Metro has increased spending in the city, improving the quality of life and allowing locals to enjoy the amenities that the city has to offer – key if Dubai is to retain its strong expatriate community. Separately, he asserts that the Metro has been invaluable in making Dubai a more attractive tourist destination and in creating a more efficient business environment.

In terms of bringing Dubai up to speed with the rest of the world, Scacciavillani is again confident that the Metro has had a crucial role to play. “Dubai is one of the most modern cities in the world in terms of infrastructure, buildings, construction technology and so forth. Before the metro, the one thing that clearly stood out in comparison to other world cities was the lack of affordable urban transportation.

With the Metro, Dubai has closed this gap. It’s more globally competitive, and on a par with the other major cities and world hubs in terms of quality of living and efficiency.”

But what about minimising traffic in the region? Has the metro reduced congestion by 17% as it set out to do?

“The impact of traffic and congestion is not easy to quantify, and requires a very systematic study to evaluate the impact of other factors such as new roads opening, the elimination of some construction sites and the reduction of people in or moving around Dubai since the financial crisis.

“In terms of passenger numbers, I believe the Metro has exceeded the RTA’s expectations, at least in the initial months. Currently, it is hard to know how popular the Metro is due to the impact of seasonal factors.” According to reports, as many as 130,000 passengers used the Metro on July 1st, a 212% rise in the daily ridership of the Metro since October 2009. In total, the number of passengers that have ridden on the Metro since its launch last year has surpassed 23 million passengers.

“The number of metro users is steadily on the rise since the launch of the service in September 2009,” said Al Tayer in a public statement in July, “with ridership jumping from 1.8 million passengers in October 2009 to 3.3 million passengers in June 2010, recording in the process an increase rate as high as 185%. In September 2009 the number of metro commuters clocked 1,196,920 passengers and the following month saw an increase in the ridership to 1,767,879 passengers.”

Looking forward
Given the Metro’s popularity, one of the biggest concerns for riders and industry experts is the future of the metro, some riders even going as far as to base their property-purchasing decisions on the opening of new stations. According to reports, the remaining eight stations are set to open in stages depending on passenger numbers over the next year, whilst the Green Line is now on course for completion by the end of 2010. For the time being, it seems that both the Purple and Blue Lines have been put on hold.

Other, more exciting news includes the possibility of an inter-emirate metro service and a series of high speed rail links, with a number of subcontractors already lining themselves up to bid for work on such projects. Clearly, there is real potential for the region to become more and more interconnected and for the benefits of the first line to be compounded, though when the RTA will move forward with such plans, remains unknown.