AS the former chairman of the erstwhile Strategic Rail Authority and later chief executive of National Express, Mr Richard Bowker was a key figure on the front line of Britain's railways during the turbulence of the last decade, when he helped to steer the industry through the difficult years following the collapse of infrastructure manager Railtrack.

Bowker's next role provided a completely different set of challenges. In 2009 he became CEO of Union Railway Company (now Etihad Rail), the company formed to oversee the construction and operation of a new $US 11bn national railway network in the United Arab Emirates. Now back in Britain and working with consultants EC Harris as senior advisor for infrastructure, Bowker has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a complete railway system where none existed previously.

The Etihad Rail project is at the heart of the Gulf States Railway, which will stretch from Muscat to Kuwait linking the UAE with the emerging railway networks of Oman and Saudi Arabia to create a truly regional system. But as well as playing an international role, these systems are being built with domestic benefits in mind.

BOWKER-RICHARD HIGH-RES"There's a need to balance the requirements of a regional network for the Gulf with the needs of the domestic networks in the UAE and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries," says Bowker. "The business case for Etihad Rail stands up on its own. The first part of the network, the Shah-Habshan Railway (SHR) has a very specific business case which isn't determined by traffic to and from neighbouring countries."

Naturally the development of a regional network requires close attention to interoperability, and as Bowker notes, one of the key issues facing Gulf States is achieving harmonisation of technical standards between their respective systems. "There are challenges because there are no pre-existing structures for co-ordinating efforts between different states, but a lot has already been achieved, he says. "Saudi Arabia set the technological benchmarks for the region because of the parameters it set for the North-South Railway. We went with the same standards in the UAE because we wanted to ensure interoperability with neighbouring railways."

International standards have been adopted in the UAE, where Etihad Rail has sought to make use of the guidelines that are most appropriate to local conditions including Arema standards for track, UIC for rail profile, and North American standards for diesel locomotives. "There's a bit of a mixture, but we went with what works best under the specific circumstances of the region," says Bowker. "There are also areas where new standards are needed, for example on sand ingress and operation in extreme ambient temperatures. EMD has done a huge amount of work on adapting locomotives for the desert environment, but there is a need to develop formal standards for the region from this."

Bowker notes that the GCC is in the process of setting up a railway authority to harmonise standards. "Naturally it takes time to properly establish such a body, so in the meantime informal discussions on construction and equipment standards have continued between the countries involved," he says. "On the operational side it's less clear what the issues would be. Everyone has gone with ERTMS Level 2, which creates a degree of harmonisation, but there's a lot still to do in terms of establishing operating rules."

Etihad Rail is drawing on the experience of international operators to launch its first freight services. In June the company announced it had established a joint venture with German Rail (DB) subsidiary DB Schenker, which will recruit more than 200 people to operate and maintain the SHR. "This is a smart move because it gives the railway expertise and important operational capabilities right from the outset," says Bowker.

Another key focus for the region's fledging railways is finding and nurturing the professional workforce that will be needed for the industry to develop and thrive. "This is a hugely important issue, and both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have policies to nurture local talent in the rail industry," Bowker explains. "It really is critical to bring talent on because it will provide a real sense of ownership in both the development and operation of the railway. Already at least 20% of Etihad Rail managers are Emiratis, and the company has worked very hard to attract the right people. The chief executive of the joint venture with DB will be an Emirati and I think that will be an inspiration for young managers coming up through the company."