Where does the Etihad Rail project stand with regard to construction, timelines, and phases? How are project awards given?
BOWKER: In terms of overall timelines, the project has been divided into three phases. The first phase is currently out to tender now. We are in the process of evaluation. We hope to be able to place the contracts for stage one, which is 264km of the total railway, before the end of the year. The other two stages are in engineering and design, so they are following on behind and the whole program spreads out over the next 6 or 7 years. Our process for project awards is a very transparent and a very open tendering process. We have invited companies from around the world and the level of interest in this project has been absolutely enormous. Many companies have submitted tenders and expressions of interest. We go through the evaluation and we take it through our internal governance process and then we will make an announcement in due course. It is a process where everybody that is qualified and capable has an opportunity to participate.
Where do projections stand for passenger numbers and the flow of goods?
BOWKER: We have done studies on the traffic projections for the railway. In terms of freight and cargo, we expect that by the time the railway has been opened in 2020 or 2030, we could be looking in the order of 50m tons of freight, which is a substantial amount for a new railway in an industry that is new to the country. We have done quite a lot of work on the passenger projections. Overall, we believe the railway will have a major contribution to the social and economic infrastructure of the country.
Where does the consortium of companies involved in the project come from? What types of expertise are they providing?
BOWKER: The countries that have shown interest are those that have a strong history of railway operation. It won’t come as a surprise that North America, all of Europe, India, China, Australia, Korea have all shown interest in this. This really is a mark to show the level of railway development that is going on in the Middle East at the moment. In terms of technology, we are going for tried and tested methods. The technology is based on well-proven international standards from North America or Europe. A very important feature is that this is a very tough environment in which to build a railway. So the consortium will be working with local companies here inside the UAE who have terrific experience dealing with the desert, the heat, and the sand. In terms of specific companies, have a look at the who’s who in railway construction and you will probably find them there.
What kind of investment does the Etihad Rail project represent in total?
BOWKER: In terms of total investment, we are probably looking in the order of AED 40bn ($10.9bn). It is a very significant investment for anybody, but it is probably a good time to be investing in infrastructure at the moment because the world construction markets are perhaps a bit more keen to be involved than they would have been a few years ago. We have to make sure we have a viable business case that incorporates all of that. We are obliged to justify everything we do. The overall business case for this project economically, financially, and socially, is very strong.
What challenges do the heat and the desert present to railway development?
BOWKER: The challenges of the environment are quite significant. Clearly sand in the desert is a principle concern not least of which because the sand in the UAE is very fine and it gets mobile quickly so we do have issues with the dunes moving. Construction of the railway is one thing, but actually keeping the railway free of sand during our operational period is also equally important and we are making sure we design that in from day one. We are looking at experience from around the world in places like America, China, and Saudi Arabia where they have just built a railway, to learn from those experiences. Heat is a very significant issue. The desert temperature in the summer can reach 60 degrees centigrade; it is extremely hot, which puts your equipment under pressure and stress. But again, we can design that in from the beginning and we make sure that our equipment suppliers are very well aware of the kind of environment that we are facing.
Once completed, how will the Etihad Rail project contribute to growth and development in the UAE as a whole? How will it contribute to each emirate? How will this impact the development of the Western Region?
BOWKER: If you look at Abu Dhabi where we have the Economic Vision 2030 that envisages a significant diversification of the economy away from a high reliance on petrochemicals into a much more diversified economic base. This base has basic industries, metals, tourism, leisure, and other significant areas of economic growth. The Road network in the UAE has served the country very well. However, in moving onto this next phase, we do need to create substantial logistics capabilities. The railway is part of that. It will provide new connections in a way that is safe, reliable, and environmentally sustainable. The overall contribution the railway will make not just to the economy but to the wider quality of life will be immense. We are talking to a wide range of potential clients. The downstream products the petrochemical industry produces is something that could go by rail. Rail is very good at moving certain kinds of material, if it’s homogeneous, low value, and bulky, then rail is perfect. So whether it’s aggregates, ore, sulfates, or containers, rail is perfect. We are not closing our minds to anything and at the moment there is a lot of discussion about potential customers. We know that a single train can take about 300 trucks off the road so that is an immediate safety benefit. In terms of the safety risk a railway is many times safer than carrying hazardous goods by road. So the railway does offer significant opportunity in those kinds of areas.
We have done studies on the traffic projections for the railway. In terms of freight and cargo, we expect that by the time the railway has been opened in 2020 or 2030, we could be looking in the order of 50m tons of freight, which is a substantial amount for a new railway in an industry that is new to the country.
In terms of the Western Region specifically, the railway will have a greater impact than anything else. These are places where the road infrastructure is more limited and they are a long way away. The first section of the railway we are building goes straight through the Western Region. It goes all the way through Madinat Zayed all the way through the area around Liwa. We will have railways there and we will be able to put stations there and then we will have passenger trains from that part of the country into Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This will make places like the Western Region much more connected with safe, reliable, comfortable public transport services.
In what ways will this project further enhance transportation and logistics industries in the UAE?
BOWKER: In terms of the UAE’s logistics, if you look at port development, there is Jebal Ali, a 12m TEU port, a world mega port really. We now have the brand new Khalifa Port that is part of the enormous Kizad development. Put those two things together and you have created an incredible hub for the UAE as a logistics center. Then the railway can connect not just the different parts of the UAE, but the entire GCC. Our railway will actually form part of the whole GCC network that will connect to Oman and over to Saudi Arabia and beyond. I think the railway will actually enable the ports and the logistics infrastructure in this country to make real advantage of what is here.
What arrangements need to be made to bridge the international travel links between GCC countries?
BOWKER: I think there is now a bit more than just talk about the GCC network. There is an agreement at the head of state level that the railway will connect internationally. We have agreed to basic technical standards so that the trains can move from one country to another easily. Saudi Arabia is working on theirs, Qatar is working on theirs, Oman is working on theirs, everybody is working on their own network, and they are also working together as well. So there is quite a lot of technical coordination that goes on. There is now a GCC Rail Authority that is in the process of being put together and that will have a technical harmonization role. It will also look at customs and cross border issues to clear those things up. The longer term is potentially more exciting because there is dialogue about extending the railway through Saudi Arabia, through Jordan, through Syria, to Turkey. Once that is done, then there is connection to the European network and there is a genuine, new, transcontinental land bridge. The future could be really exciting. In terms of the issues of crossing borders, one of the things that will have to be addressed in order to make this project work will be how goods, trains, and people can move between the different countries and beyond. This is where the GCC Rail Authority has a massive role to play if we are going to make a success of this project.