The great Metro race


    Hurrah, the Dubai Metro is here. Let’s celebrate the reduction of traffic jams on the Sheikh Zayed Road, a greener mode of travelling and an inexpensive way to quickly scramble from one end of the city to the other. As the first metro system in the Arabian peninsula, it is a revolution in public transport, but to prove revolutionary for Dubai residents and visitors it has to stand up against the established methods of transport – namely, private car, taxi and bus. It called for a test.

    The National's reporters – Oliver Good, Sophia Money-Coutts, Katie Boucher and Jessica Hume – who took the challenge of a race across Dubai. Nicole Hill / The National
    The National's reporters – Oliver Good, Sophia Money-Coutts, Katie Boucher and Jessica Hume – who took the challenge of a race across Dubai. Nicole Hill / The National

    Now, The National’s Arts & Life team are a brave bunch, not scared of competition. Why didn’t we subject the Dubai Metro to a race, from the furthest point of the new Red Line to the other? One of us would drive our own car, one would flag down a taxi, one would hop on a bus and another would board the Metro itself. From Rashidiya Terminal to Nakheel Harbour, we would each try to beat each other across the city. For added excitement, and because we live in a brave new world, we would use Twitter to send updates to our online followers as we went.

    The rules were as follows: we all had to start from the same point at Rashidiya Terminal, at the same time on the first day that the Metro was open to the public. Four reporters, four modes of transport, one race, one winner. Who would reign triumphant and who would languish behind? Nobody knew, but a little rivalry never hurt anyone. Still, it was with bated breath that we all met at Rashidiya Terminal last Thursday morning at 9.30am to find out…

    Car: 42 minutes, about Dh19

    Katie Boucher races stoically across Dubai in her private car.

    I’m not quite sure how I landed the driving gig – apart from the fact that I am the only one of us based in Abu Dhabi with a car. But if I’d known when I bought my Jeep that it would secure me what was surely the peachiest mode of transport in the big race, I would have appreciated it more.

    So here we all are, raring to go at Rashidiya Metro Station. Sophia is on her mark to the Metro ticket booth. Jessica has a nice clear sign to the taxi rank. And poor Oli just looks a bit confused, fumbling through his extensive bus timetable printouts.

    First hurdle: locating the car. The multistory car park at Rashidiya Metro Station is substantial – to the tune of 2,714 vehicles. My fail-safe mall parking procedure, though, means I have cannily written my space number on my hand.

    There had been some confusion about finding the station in the first place (journey time from Abu Dhabi: 2 hours, 15 minutes), so I’m not confident that I’ll be able to find my way back. But upon emerging into the sunshine, there is a sign to Abu Dhabi – the right direction for Nakheel Harbour and Tower. So I follow it, immediately passing under the Metro line, on which a train is just departing – presumably with Sophia on it. Neck and neck from the start, I think. This might just get interesting.

    Soon I am winding through construction in the opposite direction from which I came. A quick summary of our odds puts Sophia in the lead. She just has to travel in a straight line with a few stops en route. I, however, have to negotiate lots of hungry and thirsty drivers in a part of town I am completely unfamiliar with during rush hour.

    Jessica, with her Dubai-savvy taxi driver, is sure to come second. But at least I have a chance against Oli. And that’s the thought I run with as I head off into the desert in an unnerving articulated lorry sandwich.

    Traffic out here is free flowing. I had intended to get to Sheikh -Zayed Road, where I might get a better feel for the car flow now that the people of the city have supposedly abandoned their vehicles in favour of the Metro. But as is the way with Dubai, where you rarely end up going in the -direction you planned, it is not to be. Miles of sand soon turn into -Global Village, Motor City and -Arabian Ranches. The Metro, it seems, is unable to make itself felt out here, as cars and lorries bottleneck at a series of increasingly slow traffic lights.

    I picture Jessica cruising down a deserted Sheikh Zayed Road as I inch forward amid belching diesel fumes, and Sophia flicking through a magazine before being deposited, unruffled, at her destination. I, however, am not going anywhere fast. More inching. But then a sliver of hope: the Burj al Arab’s unmistakable sail slowly appears out of the haze ahead of me.

    As I soar over the flyover and down onto Sheikh Zayed Road heading south, Sophia decides to put in a call. This must be her telling me she’s arrived, I think, trying to remain pleased with my third position.

    “I’m at Mall of the Emirates -station,” she says. Neck and neck once again. The competition is back on. I steam through Dubai Marina, a burst of competitiveness rising up inside me. There is still a chance for victory – and I am -taking it.

    I speed past Dubai Marina towards Jebel Ali and a sign to Nakheel Harbour and Tower station. But I am on the wrong side of the road. Another flyover. And then, inexplicably, I am heading back into the desert. The glorious U-turn – a manoeuvre I am yet to encounter legally anywhere else in the world – puts me back on track, and I screech to a halt outside the Metro exactly 42 minutes after I started.

    No sign of life. Perhaps Sophia is stuck. And Jessica’s driver isn’t quite so savvy after all. Oli, by all accounts, is yet to leave Rashidiya bus station. A call from Sophia confirms that she was indeed delayed at Mall of the Emirates. I glance to my left and there is Jessica, attempting to cross Sheikh Zayed Road on foot. Victory is mine. My car deserves a hug. But it settles for a pat on the nose.

    * Katie Boucher

    Taxi: 59 minutes, Dh74

    Jessica Hume does her part for the Great Race by taking driver Saeed Montaj’s taxi to Nakee Harbour. Jessica Hume / The National

    Given the reality of traffic in Dubai, the idea of trying to race from one end of the city to the other in a taxi is not the most thrilling prospect. But considering the alternative modes of transit my competitors are stuck with – a private vehicle (impossible for me; I don’t have a licence), the Metro (more promising but with first-day glitches) and the bus (let’s just say Oli finished the race on foot) – the taxi all of a sudden doesn’t seem so bad.

    The hardest part, as always, is finding one. Waiting on the side of an empty road outside Rashidiya Station without shade is no one’s preferred way to pass the time. Perhaps the only feeling that balances out the desperation that comes from a sweaty, 20-minute wait is the relief and gratitude when one finally pulls up beside you.

    The second hardest part of taxi transit is relaying the desired destination to the driver and having the name of the area recognised in return.

    “Nakheel Harbour? Hmm, are you sure that’s what it’s called?” Saeed Montaj asks me. This is not the response I want.

    “Yes,” I say, “and this is also a race. A very serious race so we must get there quickly. Onwards!”

    The 34-year-old Bangladeshi -driver has lived in Dubai for 18 years, 14 of which he has spent driving a cab. You’d think he’d know this city like the back of his hand. But he doesn’t. That’s what happens when a city changes so rapidly. Even the cabbies can’t keep up.

    The most recent addition, the -Metro, has only just opened and could potentially affect Montaj’s livelihood.

    “I think the taxi business will come down a bit,” he says. “I’d say by about 30 per cent. “But I’m not worried about my job. People will always take taxis. The Metro doesn’t go everywhere, and it’s hot out. And people are lazy. This will not change.”

    Indeed. Successful public -transit has been implemented in cities across the globe – Paris, London, Tokyo, Toronto – and none has eliminated the need for taxis.

    “Look, if you need to go anywhere other than from Jebel Ali to Dubai along Sheikh Zayed Road, this -Metro is not going to take you there.”

    But as Montaj pontificates about the merits and shortcomings of this new addition to civic mobility, one of those blue, streamlined trains passes us on its elevated tracks, leaving us, stuck in a midday traffic jam, behind. It seems we are moving either 100kmh or not at all. I remind Montaj that this is a race.

    I explain that the bus, the Metro, a Jeep and us, in this taxi, are racing to Nakheel Harbour. After gently refusing my requests to “please go a little faster”, Montaj decides to weigh in.

    “We will win the race. I didn’t take Sheikh Zayed Road, I took the Burj Dubai side. Less traffic.” He seems willfully unaware of the stop-and-go traffic we’re stuck in. “Actually, the Metro will win. They go in a straight line. Hmm, but they have to stop at every station. OK, we will win.”

    Of course, each type of traffic in this city comes with its own set of dangers and frustrations. Once we are moving again, we have to compete with other drivers who seem to have mistaken this stretch of road with an aggressive session of Grand Theft Auto.

    From the corner of his eye, Montaj spots another blue train humming along silently on its tracks. But the train is coming up to a station.

    “It will have to stop now,” he says, speeding up for the first time until we pass it. “We will beat it. The train is far away now.”

    A little further on, we spot that much anticipated sign: “Nakheel Harbour and Tower Station.” There isn’t much surrounding the station, save for hot sand, 16 lanes of motorway and a bridge to the other side.

    “This is really where you want to be dropped?” he asks, seeming to feel almost guilty about slowing down on the side of the motorway and letting me out. Just like that.

    It cost Dh74.50 and took 59 minutes, including the 20-minute wait to find a cab. I call Katie to tell her I’m here.

    “I won,” she says. So smug.

    On our way back to Abu Dhabi, we stop for gas. Filling the tank of -Katie’s politically incorrect beast of a Jeep costs her Dh80 – just a little more than my cab fare. Maybe, we think, there is something to be said for the Metro.

    * Jessica Hume

    Metro: 2 hrs, 25 mins, Dh6.60

    It all started with such promise. Red Line trains are said to chug along at an average of 42 kmh, while traffic cruising Sheikh Zayed Road can hit 100 kmh.

    But at 9.30am, when our race started there would be traffic on the roads. Buses, taxis and cars would encounter endless stopping and starting at signals while my Metro would zip unencumbered along its shiny new line to Nakheel Harbour. I would win. Simple.

    The journey began smoothly. I paid Dh6.50 for a standard ticket (instead of Dh11.60 for a Gold Class one), swiped myself through the ticket barrier, hopped on the escalator to the train platform and boarded. Unlike in London, where you have to roll up your sleeves to fight for a seat, there were plenty of spaces available – lots of clean blue seats with decent leg room and space for luggage.

    The carriage was well air-conditioned, and people were making eye contact and smiling at one another. Several wandered around taking pictures and jaunty music filtered through speakers. It was a joyous Metro indeed.

    Sitting nearby me was a gentleman named Noushaad, who said he was on the way to his office in Union Square and that he was delighted not to be driving. I nodded in agreement and sighed contentedly as we pulled into our first station, the airport. It had taken less than five minutes from Rashidiya. I sent a couple of tweets, boldly saying that we were already at the airport and that I could taste victory. It was fighting talk.

    I made my way to the front of the train to the Gold Class carriage and a section for women and the elderly. Apart from myself, there were no women, or indeed any elderly people, but I was allowed to peek into Gold Class. One man sat in leather-seated splendour reading the newspaper. But apart from slightly bigger seats and more space, there isn’t much difference between the two types of carriage. It all gets you there in the end anyway. I sent another tweet saying I wasn’t in Gold Class but remained content. Surely I was winning.

    Three official-looking people stood behind me with plastic passes swinging around their necks. Were they from the RTA, I asked, and could I enquire how smoothly things were running this morning? “We’re from the operating company, I’m afraid, so we’re not allowed to say anything,” explained one. But in the calm and serene atmosphere of the Metro train this didn’t matter one jot. We all laughed and they wished me well in my race. “Let’s hope you win,” he said cheerfully.

    In the end, that was not to be. At Mall of the Emirates, 40 minutes after leaving Rashidiya, disaster struck. The train stopped at the platform and didn’t move. After 10 minutes, my fellow travellers, previously a happy bunch, started fidgeting in their seats. I went to talk to one of the train attendants, a woman called Cinderella.

    “We need a fairy godmother perhaps,” I suggested, chuckling at my own joke. Cinderella looked momentarily confused, but told me that everything would be fine; there was just a slight delay up ahead.

    But then out came Cinderella’s walkie-talkie. It looked bad. “Everybody off to the other platform,” she cried. We dutifully moved to the other platform.

    “Go back again,” ordered a manager called Bazith. Like a flock of obedient sheep, we crossed back over.

    At this point, unbeknown to me, one of our online followers scribbled on the live blog that Cinderella wouldn’t be going to the ball. -Neither would the rest of us at this rate. The outcome of the race hung in the balance.

    It then became apparent that there is a dearth of seating arrangements on Metro platforms. There were four for about 40 of us waiting there. But instead of engaging in an ungainly seat tussle, I went to -harangue another woman on a walkie-talkie, Terry.

    “It might take an hour or more ma’am, there is a problem with the train in front,” she said apologetically.

    Just then, Katie phoned me. She had just reached Nakheel Harbour and could claim victory. Jess swept in just after her. I offered lukewarm congratulations and comforted myself with the fact that Oli was still out there somewhere.

    “Please go downstairs,” Terry said brightly. “There are retail shops and you will hear when the train comes. How about that?” I peered out the windows at the traffic sweeping past along the Sheikh Zayed Road and grimaced. One woman slugged from a bottle of water to frowning from a nearby man. “I have a medical note,” she said crossly. Tempers were fraying.

    An hour and a half passed. Every five minutes or so, one of the herd would venture up to Terry and demand an answer. Terry could only reply that we would be on our way soon. I started to panic slightly. Where was Oli?

    Eventually, the situation perked up. Another train swept into the platform. There was an almighty stampede for the doors and we swept on our way. It took us less than 10 minutes to reach Nakheel Harbour, but it had taken just under two and a half hours for the entire trip.

    “Teething problems,” a fellow passenger muttered darkly. Indeed.

    Once at Nakheel Harbour, I reflected that, teething problems aside, the journey had been a pleasant enough experience. Yes it was slow, but it’s early days and, post-journey, I didn’t feel personally violated by the experience, as one does so often with the London Underground or New York subway. Better still, as I left Nakheel Station, Oli called saying he had only just left Deira. I might not have triumphed, but at least I wasn’t last.

    * Sophia Money-Coutts

    Bus: 4 hrs, 32 mins, Dh20

    The bus may not be fast but it is somewhere to catch up on your sleep. Oliver Good / The National

    The Dubai Metro was only a few hours old when we began our challenge but it had already become the city’s most beloved mode of transport. Once, buses were the answer to Dubai’s needs: 79 routes covering more than 264,260km and carrying 310,000 passengers every day. But no longer. They had been usurped.

    I wondered why. Buses are economical, environmentally sound, even sociable. There’s nothing like having an experienced driver at the wheel when you’re in a hurry.

    I planned to make the journey across to Nakheel Harbor the way a tourist might: with a modest understanding of the city’s geography and a Dh20 bus pass. Since I’d never ridden Dubai’s buses before, the illusion of ignorance would not be difficult to create.

    A woman at the Metro station’s information desk told me to cross the street and wait for an F999 or F37 bus direct to Nakheel Harbor. This was going to be easy.

    But after 30 minutes, I was sweating buckets and there were no buses. I went back into the terminal and was told that crossing the road had been a mistake. Thanks.

    Then I was directed to the bus terminal at the bottom of the Metro station car park. The only person at the terminal was a driver on a break between shifts. He said there was no direct bus to Nakheel Harbor and that a change in Deira would be the only way. I didn’t have time for that, but there was nobody around to give a second opinion. I walked out of the terminal to a smaller bus stop and boarded the Number 4. There were no other passengers. Was the Metro already taking its toll on the number of bus users?

    I soon learnt that two of my competitors had already passed the finish line 50km away. I had barely moved. But then I heard that the Metro had stalled near Mall of the Emirates. Sophia was stranded; I was still in the game.

    Driving a car from Rashidiya to Deira only takes 20 minutes, but my bus ride took an hour and a half. Was my watch wrong? How was it possible for a bus to move at such a glacially slow pace? I did have a nice conversation with a fellow passenger, though.

    When I eventually arrived in Deira, Sophia had stopped pestering me with “Where are you now?” calls, so I knew I had been beaten. At least she wasn’t calling me to brag.

    I needed a bus that would take me straight up Sheikh Zayed Road, but nobody could tell me which one would do it. The timetables made no sense. I was told the entire network had recently been changed, with many of the buses now acting merely as feeders for the Metro, so some of the information could be out of date. There was also talk of Ramadan operating hours. I still don’t know if any of that was true.

    The 8A was much faster, but instead of taking me along Zayed Road, it headed along Al Wasl Road near the seafront. I had no idea where I would end up, but at least I was heading in the right direction.

    Sweat began dripping from my neighbour’s head onto my arm. When would it all end?

    The bus driver told me to get out at Jumeirah Beach Park and catch the X25, which would whisk me away to Nakheel Tower. Sure, I’d finish last and there was little hope of proving that a bus could still cut it against the Metro, but I wouldn’t have given up the fight. The X25 snaked in and out of Jumeirah Beach Road and the marina; it never went near Zayed Road or my destination.

    After a few minutes I was booted out. End of the line. The midday sun was beaming down and I couldn’t concentrate. How far away was my destination? Could another bus take me there?

    No. No more information desks, no more timetables, no more bus drivers. I would rely on myself.

    I walked to Zayed Road, then headed south-west out of Dubai. Was Nakheel Harbour a mile away or 10? With sweat dripping off my nose, I walked up a flyover to get a better view. As the cars and lorries sped past, I could see a blurry outline in the distance. Was it a Metro station? Was it Nakheel Harbor?

    After 30 minutes of dodging traffic and emptying sand from my shoe, I was there. I pushed open the glass doors and felt the sweat on my back freeze. No procession had arrived to welcome me home like Odysseus returning from his great quest but I didn’t need one. Sure, I had lost, but I had lost fabulously.

    * Oliver Good