Long commute makes case for Abu Dhabi-Dubai rail

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By Sean Cronin  www.thenational.ae

I was in Carrefour at the weekend looking for those triangular blades you attach to your wheels to shred the tyres of other motorists who get too close.

The Palm monorail does not link up with anything other than the Atlantis, The Palm. Paulo Vecina / The National
The Palm monorail does not link up with anything other than the Atlantis, The Palm. Paulo Vecina / The National

Not sure what they’re called, but I had seen them while watching Ben-Hur on TCM the previous evening and thought if they were fitted as standard on Roman Empire chariots, there would almost certainly be a more recent model compatible with a 2004 Yaris hatchback. At least you’d think.

The man wearing the yellow jersey with “May I help you?” written on the back was entirely useless as it turned out. He should have had “No, I can’t” written on the front. I don’t know where they get these people. Instinct told me there wasn’t any point asking in which aisle the centurion uniforms could be found.

Driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi every day can make a man do strange things. It’s a mix of tedium and terror. People who have experienced war describe combat similarly. But I suppose you’d call this pre-traumatic stress.

The only indicator of when the boredom ends and the bedlam begins is the brake lights of the vehicle in front, momentarily illuminating the words “Am I driving safely?” before the screech of rubber on asphalt answers the question.

“Indicator” is probably a poor choice of word. It’s not as if you ever spot a functioning one. They are seen as a sign of weakness when changing lanes. Even the novice of the Abu Dhabi to Dubai highway knows the full beam flicked in rapid strobe-like succession is the preferred mode of warning if one is to avoid motoring social embarrassment.

A year of driving on that road can test the mental mettle of even the most balanced of commuters. But while the 120km trip sometimes tries one’s ability to keep a grip on the steering wheel of sanity, it can also provide a very rational insight into how the engine of the economy is ticking over as well as pointing to potential economic roadblocks ahead.

Anecdotal evidence says a lot of people are now travelling from Dubai to work in Abu Dhabi, but there is little dependable data available to quantify just how many make the journey and whether they are increasing or decreasing in number.

It’s not as if those of us who use the road daily can do a quick Rain Man calculation. But we can draw some conclusions from the length of time it takes to queue up at the petrol pumps and that is indisputably lengthening as the long rush hour queues outside every service station along the road testifies every evening.

In recent months they seem to have hit that tipping point of no longer being able to cope with the volume of traffic. That tells us more assuredly than any research note from a big bank that the economy is picking up or at least that of the capital is.

The increased congestion on the country’s busiest artery is also a reminder of the importance of an integrated transport system.

While vast sums have been spent on major transport projects in recent years, many of them have been emirate-specific. The frenetic pace of development has made it difficult for planners to keep up with population growth and, because much of the transport infrastructure has been delivered by developers rather than councils, some of it has been conceived with a corporate rather than a municipal mindset.

An example is the Palm monorail, which transports people from the Atlantis, The Palm to the base of the island but which doesn’t link up with anything else. Every day, tourists alight and ask which platform is for the Mall of the Emirates, only to be told they need to catch a cab.

To be fair, I’m one of its regular users, but only because I’ve told the young lad it is the real-life Thomas the Tank Engine. It helps that one of the ticket inspectors who works there would easily pass for the Fat Controller in a line-up.

Many other high-profile transport projects in both emirates are aimed at easing travel within them but do not help those making the trek between them.

Pundits often ask why Abu Dhabi and Dubai are not viewed in the same way as Zurich and Geneva or Edinburgh and Glasgow?

One reason may be that unlike such cities, there is no railway line connecting them. Railways are among the important ties that bind countries together and a rail link between these two emirates connecting up with the Dubai Metro, as well as the mass transit projects planned for the capital, would be a huge boon for the economy.

As the queues lengthen outside petrol stations on the highway connecting the two cities, the case for a high-speed rail link is becoming stronger. The benefits that such a project would bring to both cities are manifest – if not for the greater economic good, at least for the sanity of us twitching commuters forced to travel by road.

scronin@thenational.ae