By Frank Kane www.thenational.ae
Who could fail to love France’s TGV, the Train A Grande Vitesse? Swishing almost soundlessly through the lush countryside, transporting you comfortably and speedily from one beautiful city to another, the TGV is part of the French way of life and one of the things foreigners always rave about in tourist opinion polls.
Now imagine the same experience in the Middle East. No more congested, dangerous roads, no more hassle at airports. Dubai-to-Abu Dhabi travel time cut to 30 minutes or less, not long enough to get bored with the desert view.
I recently met a man who knows all about the TGV experience, and wants to repeat it in the Gulf. Guillaume Pepy was in Dubai for a conference, and spared an hour or so to talk with me about trains. He is clearly in love with them, and it was no hardship to listen to a man who gainsays the traditional wonky image of the rail nerd.
Mr Pepy has been with the French rail company SNCF for 22 years, and president since 2008. What he doesn’t know about rail-travel isn’t worth knowing.
We met soon after the TGV celebrated 30 years of operation. In that time, he told me enthusiastically, the service has transported 1.7 billion passengers, without a single fatal accident. It is a record of which Mr Pepy is proud, and rightly so.
He raved about the advantages of rail over road: cheaper, more environmentally friendly and safer. Above all, he insisted, it fits in with the mantra of sustainability, one of the buzzwords of the modern business lexicon.
When I asked him what he thought of the Dubai Metro, his enthusiasm levels rose again. His company is involved in the Dubai system, via its international consulting group Systra, which oversaw parts of the project. It was, he said, one of the best mass-transit systems in the world. He had never seen such quality, he insisted, adding that the UAE had become a “pioneer” in the rail industry.
His excitement increased even further when he started to talk about the planned GCC railway. SNCF is keen to be involved in this grand projet for Middle East transport, which ultimately aims to link the GCC countries with a line hugging the Gulf coast from Kuwait to Jeddah. The Middle East could “start from scratch”, he said, and develop a “state-of-the-art” rail system better than anything else in the world.
Even coming from the head of SNCF, who is involved in some of the tenders for various stages of the project, that is ambitious talk indeed. The GCC plan has been talked about and theorised over for many years, but has yet to reach the implementation stage.
There is some progress with the UAE stretch of the Gulf rail system, and also on the planned line between Jeddah, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, but much of it remains on the drawing board, a long way from design, financing or construction.
There are good reasons why the GCC railway has not been wholeheartedly endorsed by the governments of the region. Indeed, there are also good reasons why it might never be fully completed, along the vision of Mr Pepy.
Historically, the Arab world has seldom embraced rail as a form of transport. The two big projects in the region, the Hejaz Railway built by the former Ottoman rulers, and the Berlin-to-Baghdad line, were both the work of imperial masters, and rail was landed with the image of being the “rulers’ road”.
Soon after independence, the Arabs discovered oil, cheap and in abundance, and instead began to construct the road network that now connects most parts of the peninsula. With petrol so plentiful, cars relatively cheap because of low taxation, and an increasingly sophisticated road system, rail just never took off in the Middle East.
With the growth of affordable air travel, it looked as though the region would never have a “golden age” of rail travel, unlike many parts of the world.
Mr Pepy would have none of that. He recognised the cultural difficulties of getting Middle East drivers out of their 4x4s, off the roads and on to public transport, but sees the future in two areas: integrated mass urban transport systems for the big cities, and an interconnecting rail freight network that would take the biggest, most polluting and most dangerous heavy traffic off the roads and on to rail.
It is a railwayman’s dream, and for sure SNCF has the technical capability to see it through. But it needs concerted political will to make it happen.