On the right track: GCC Railway requires seamless precision

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On the right track: GCC Railway requires seamless precision

GCC Railway will connect the Gulf via a highly efficient, interoperable network. Senior railway expert, Kostas Tzanakakis, discusses the key factors set to make the project a resounding success

If someone told me two decades ago that trains would run successfully between China and Europe, my response would have been ‘not possible’. I would have been wrong.

Since 2011, trains have operated freely through China and Europe and, in those eight years, the ever-expanding map of destinations for China's rail cargo has grown at great pace.

More countries are continuing to connect via rail. Not only is it one of the most environmentally friendly ways of moving cargo, it responds to the global supply-demand needs of today. By connecting a country’s key trade centres, rail acts as a catalyst for economic growth.

For the Gulf region’s own rail project – GCC Railway – to succeed, we must create a network that is interoperable. This will pave the way for seamless connectivity; one more efficient than its European counterpart.

The project comprises approximately 2,100km of railway network, providing an international link between all GCC countries. But before discussing the infrastructural and administrative needs for this project to work well, let’s quickly touch on the environmental benefits of an interconnecting rail network.

Based on forecasted traffic volumes, Etihad Rail (the UAE’s segment of the GCC Railway network), will reduce greenhouse gases by more than 2.2 million tonnes annually.Additionally, a single freight train’s journey is estimated to carry a load of up to 200 trucks, in turn reducing traffic congestion, accidents and road maintenance. Rail travel scores highly as far as its sustainable viability goes, and that has to be lauded.

Why interoperability is key to success

When we speak about interoperability, most people only think about the technical aspects of operating in conjunction with each other. But interoperability is about removing barriers; technical, administrative and legal.

With the GCC Railway project, we are witnessing a smart approach to cross-border infrastructure. The region is taking advantage of the know-how from countries that already have interconnecting railway networks in place, therefore avoiding their mistakes, all while adopting technology and solutions that work for the region.

While we cannot deny the successes of the European railway system, the fact that every country developed its own railway network and standards created problems; problems relating to gauge widths, electrification standards and safety and signaling systems.

From the get-go, the six countries within the GCC established a set of common guidelines to avoid such interoperability issues, and that was a great approach.

Any other approach could have resulted in six railway systems that lacked connectivity, making it more difficult and more costly to run a train from one country to another. That feet-first approach could have stopped the whole project in its tracks, so those common guidelines are the first step to what I believe will be its success.

How common guidelines are paving the path ahead

These six countries already have a planned infrastructure in place that will allow trains to move from one country to another, freely. The parameters regarding gauge of tracks, axel weight, height of platforms at stations, and signaling systems will all be the same. However, these common guidelines only relate to the GCC rail network’s main line. To have the smaller in-country networks be part of a bigger system, they all need to link together in accordance with the common guidelines.

Looking at the administrative needs, project leaders need to ensure a harmonised approach to the network’s medium- and long-term planning. It makes no sense to lay down plans to finalise part of the mainline after three years, only then to strategise how the rest of the track will take shape, five to seven years down the line. The vision needs to come together earlier.

Another essential element is the need to facilitate better movement from country to country. For example, when moving from Oman to Kuwait, trains shouldn’t have to stop in each country along the way to arrange access and approvals for cargo. It should be a seamless journey. This would help to create a competitive railway area within the GCC countries and would facilitate smoother business practice.

Stemming from this would be the development and implementation of software tools to ensure the efficiency of the transport operations. As an example, a tracking tool would promote businesses to move their cargo from point A to point B all while monitoring the step-by-step journey. A train localisation system could also be set up to better control rail movement.

And regarding a set of common safety standards, this should emulate the technical guidelines in that each country follows the same set of rules relating to health and safety needs.

Looking at the legal interoperability, having the same legal contracts in place would make the movement of cargo from point A to point B more efficient. Legal certainty would also boost business confidence when importing and exporting goods. This element would need to be agreed upon by all Gulf countries to avoid any disputes, but if introduced it would optimise business operation.

Together with the GCC General Secretariat (which is based in Saudi Arabia and manages the GCC Railway project), expert working groups are collaborating to prepare the technical, operational and institutional regulations for this network. It will be at the discretion of the General Secretariat where, for instance, a one-stop-shop could be established, and it would be up to these expert working groups to examine the responsibilities of such a facility.

There is more to it than technology

Looking at the broader picture, the idea of a truly global rail system is absolutely possible. And the GCC Railway project is key to making this vision a reality.

An established efficient railway system fit for the future doesn’t just rely on technical interoperability though. A seamless approach to administrative and legal solutions has to be put in place so that it doesn’t create tensions in trade relations.

Today, there are a lot of international transport corridors either in the planning stage or already established; the Europe-Asia corridor being the main one. This region needs to place itself on that map. I believe the planned railway network has a very good future in the GCC and it is imperative these six countries realise that their railway network needs to be part of a global picture.

Kostas Tzanakakis works at the Oman Ministry of Transport and Communications. Thoughts and views are his own.

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