DUBAI A CENTURY after Lawrence of Arabia cut the Damascus- Medina railway, governments are embarking on plans to restore long-distance rail transport in the region and extend it across the Arabian Peninsula.
Official figures suggest around $100 billion may be spent by the end of this decade laying over 6,000 kilometres (3,750 miles) o f track for both national lines and a route linking all the states in the Gulf Cooperation Council: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.
The governments face big technical challenges, such as making six national rail systems compatible and building on the shifting sands of remote deserts.
But success could have far-reaching effects on economies in the region, cutting their dependence on expensive road and air travel, boosting trade and even bringing the GCC closer together politically.
“It will undoubtedly transform the economies as any major piece of railway does,” said Keith Hampson, director of global rail transit at Aecom, a US-based transport planning firm.
“It opens up all sorts of trading relationships that probably otherwise would not have existed.” The Turkish-built Hejaz Railway to the Saudi city of Medina was never rebuilt in Saudi Arabia after Lawrence of Arabia’s raiding parties destroyed parts of it during World War I. Rail transport has been neglected in the Gulf since then; trade depends heavily on columns of smog-spewing trucks running along desert highways.
Currently, the only major rail systems operating in the GCC are a 60- year old freight and passenger link between Riyadh and the port of Dammam in Saudi Arabia, and Dubai’s metro.
But that is set to change dramatically as growing populations and countries’ desire to diversify their economies away from oil exports cause them to pour money into railway construction.
Saudi Arabia is building a 2,750 kilometre line from Riyadh to its northern border with Jordan, aiming to complete it in 2014.