Opinion: Full speed ahead for GCC’s metro projects

Enhancing global prestige, boosting economic growth and fostering sustainability are key reasons to build metros

Opinion: Full speed ahead for GCC's metro projects

Rapidly-urbanising Middle East and North Africa countries need to overcome rising levels of traffic congestion and pollution.

Rail projects – especially metros and trams – will be essential for carrying large numbers of people over long distances quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively, and enhancing economic growth and mobility. The region recognises the opportunity, with the Middle East spending $200bn on rail by 2030, according to an 2017 industry report.

For example, the Riyadh Metro in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest urban transport projects, will leverage innovations such as automatic train signalling to reduce headways to 90 seconds, and energy recovery that can reinvest braking energy into the electrical network.

In Egypt, the Cairo Metro’s Line 3 expansion is set to use advanced signalling systems to ensure safe, fluid, and comfortable journeys. These innovations will support short headways that can transport the projected 1.5 million daily passengers by the time the line opens in 2022.

Across the Arabian Gulf and MENA region, transportation authorities are encouraged to adopt the latest metro innovations, covering the following key economic benefits:

Enhancing global business prestige: Metros are often the first point of contact for business travellers when they enter a city’s airport. A sleek, fast and easy-to-use metro connecting the airport to downtown would present a strong first impression to visitors. Cities that build metro networks also underscore that they understand the importance of urban mobility, and can complement existing GCC rail and transport projects.

Faster travel times and increasing economic growth: In cities where traffic congestion can often impact commuting times, and people can find themselves late to work, metros can provide a quick, efficient and safe way for people to get to work on time, ensuring no lost revenue or productivity. For large-scale events – sport, music, New Year, etc – a metro can quickly and efficiently transport large numbers of people.

Attracting the millennial workforce: Increasingly, one of the key factors for choosing a city is its transportation infrastructure, especially for millennials, who comprise a significant portion of the GCC’s incoming workforce. In one recent study of millennials, for example, 40 percent prefer to take mass transit to work, especially citing costs, convenience and exercise.

Boosting real estate markets: Metro lines can increase property development and values alongside stations as many residents prefer to live within walking distance of mass transit. At the same time, using innovative “value capture” methodology, metros can wind up paying for themselves.

Supporting sustainable and healthy communities: Metros are especially effective at taking cars off the road and reducing carbon emissions which, in turn, support healthier and greener communities. Having a metro would also support GCC countries in accomplishing their Paris Agreement goals of mitigating climate change.

Being at the forefront of technological innovation: Passengers are used to having real-time information across all aspects of their daily lives – and waiting for and riding the train is no different. For example, the Optimet OrbanMap provides a real-time, dynamic and integrated vision of a city’s transport, from train position to travel times, along with nearby places of interest. On the platform, Optimet sensors and analytics support LED lights that can help passengers to board train cars more efficiently.

In one recent study of millennials, 40 percent prefer to take mass transit to work, citing costs, convenience and exercise”

Abu Dhabi’s opportunity

One of the biggest metro opportunities in the region could be Abu Dhabi. While the UAE capital has wide streets and less traffic compared to regional cities, the city still faces urgency in enhancing its mass transit. With Abu Dhabi opening world-class museums, serving as a hub for multinational companies, and hosting more mega events, the emirate needs to seriously consider rail projects as a new mass transit alternative to taxis, buses and corporate vans.

Government authorities would not need to build a massive metro from scratch. Instead, the Abu Dhabi metro could start small – for example, reducing the greatest congestion on Abu Dhabi island. Abu Dhabi’s metro could then expand to farther destinations such as Saadiyat Island’s cultural district, Yas Island’s entertainment and sporting facilities, and Al Raha Beach. The metro would also be able to integrate with more mass transit lines or trams.

Alstom, as one of the world’s leaders in urban mobility, is now working closely with MENA governments to enhance their transportation networks. The company has been involved in the Cairo metro – the first metro in Africa – since the early 1980s through rolling stock, signalisation, centralised control and telecom infrastructures for several lines. Alstom is also involved in the modernisation of 52 metro units on Cairo’s metro line 1 and Dubai’s Route 2020 project.

Leveraging best practices from the region, the GCC’s metro and tram projects could transform the urban experience for generations to come, enabling economic growth and unlocking new levels of sustainability.

Yas Island’s bold plans

Fast-forward to 2023, and Abu Dhabi could be welcoming more than just a metro. Miral, the Yas Island asset management and marketing firm, has already signed a deal with US-based SkyTran – a NASA Space Act company – to develop a personal rapid transport system based on magnetic levitation (maglev). Flying pods, basically.

SkyTran’s computer-controlled, two-person “jet-like” vehicles employ magnetic levitation technology instead of wheels and run on elevated monorails, and Miral wants the system to connect “current and future destinations” on Yas Island, and then eventually link to the nearby Abu Dhabi International Airport.

“Innovation remains at the heart of what we do on Yas Island,” commented Mohamed Abdulla Al Zaabi, CEO of Miral.

“With SkyTran, we have a partner who not only shares our vision for innovation in Abu Dhabi, but are developing a service which will transform the Yas Island experience, and grow our appeal to the millions of residents and tourists who visit us from the UAE and across the world.” More

Thi Mai Tran, GCC Managing Director at Alstom Group