RAIL transport in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has come a long way in the past 10 years. From an ambitious vision to extract mineral wealth from the desert interior, history was made in October 2014 when the first train operated on a section of what is now the 264km line from Shah to Habshan and the port at Ruwais.

Trial operations were gradually stepped up and the line had carried more than 4 million tonnes of granulated sulphur for its sole customer, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) by the end of 2015. Commercial operations officially began on January 1, and two 1600m-long trains are now running per day, each carrying 11,000 tonnes and taking the cumulative total to more than 5 million tonnes of product shipped.

Etihad1"We have exceeded the expectations of our client," says Mr Shadi Malak, acting CEO of Etihad Rail DB, the operator and infrastructure manager of the line. "When we decided to build the railway we had a tough task to convince Adnoc that it would be suitable because they have never used rail before, they have always used pipelines or trucks. But we managed to do that and they are very happy with the result."

Malak has been involved with the UAE's railway project, and the country's national railway Union Railway, which was rebranded as Etihad Rail in 2011, since the very beginning. He initially worked on the feasibility study for the project nine years ago and is now overseeing operations.

Etihad Rail DB is actually a joint venture of Etihad Rail (51%), and German Rail (DB) subsidiaries DB Cargo and DB International (49%), and Malak says that having the backing of a respected operator and railway was important in selling the idea of rail to its customer.

"To have one of the largest European rail operators working alongside you is an add on to your capability," Malak says. "DB transports millions of tonnes of freight across Europe so it brings that experience. The German name is also associated with quality – you think of Mercedes Benz and BMW for example. It was very important to provide this confidence, particularly in the first couple of years."

DB's involvement in the project dates back to 2008-09 when Mr Niko Warbanoff, chairman of the board of directors of DB International, says the company began consulting with Union Railway on the operational model for the project. Three options were considered: a concession model, in-sourcing everything into Etihad Rail, or establishing a joint venture.

Warbanoff says the feeling was that the joint venture model was right for the project and this proposal was ultimately presented by Etihad Rail to the UAE government. "We believed at the time it was the best option to master the challenges the project faced," he says.

A tendering process subsequently took place and DB Cargo was selected as the joint venture partner in March 2014 to operate and maintain the first phase of the network, with the company also acting as a consultant for future phases of the UAE's planned 1200km network.

"We are already working in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region so we have local experience which we are bringing here," Warbanoff says. "For us, it is about being one of the leading companies and railways in the world. The Middle East, the GCC, and the UAE are developing this transport system and we are working as a good partner to do that together."

Opening the new line has established the UAE as the world's leading producer of granulated sulphur, a by-product of gas production and a primary ingredient in fertiliser production. It is an unstable material, which if it is not of a certain quality, can combust when exposed to the atmosphere.

A key reason therefore for Adnoc to choose rail as its primary transport method was the high availability on offer. Indeed the operator currently has a 91.5% punctuality rate. Yet given the remote and hostile environment in which it is operating, Etihad Rail DB has and continues to combat a variety of challenges to maintain this high standard of performance.

Malak says during development the operator consulted extensively with other railways in Saudi Arabia and China, and from other projects in the region, including road. The company has also learnt a lot from its own experiences during its short time in operations and is continually adapting to the various challenges it faces.


One major issue is sand. Malak says that this has been a challenge since day one and that the railway was designed to mitigate the impact as much as possible; from choosing a certain track geometry to the specific design of the track structure. Ditches and sand traps were also built alongside the railway, while the railway's seven EMD SD70ACS locomotives are fitted with sand filtration systems.

He says that while not every day, and not all of the railway is affected, sand problems are at least a weekly occurrence, and maintenance-of-way equipment is utilised to clear sand much like it is in other countries to clear snow. There is also an emphasis on preventative work. Etihad Rail DB monitors the movement of sand dunes so they are dealt with before they reach the track while trials are underway of alternative methods to reduce the impact such as planting vegetation in the vicinity of the line.

Kevin Smith meets Shadi Malak and Niko Warbanoff in Berlin.

"One thing we have learnt is that you cannot fight nature," Malak says. "You cannot keep all of the sand away, some will come in no matter what you do, and as long as it does not cover the entire track then that is fine. What you can do is adapt to it and design and build your railway in such a way that it does not challenge it."

The tough environment in which the railway is operating and the hazardous material that it is carrying necessitated the deployment of sophisticated equipment. For example the 240 covered wagons manufactured by CSR are very sophisticated in their design but Malak says this has come with issues. For instance, the fleet team and technicians have had to optimise the wagons' sensors and changed the locking mechanism on the hatches since they were delivered.

Other challenges are posed by wildlife in the area. Problems with camels were foreseen but Malak admits no-one predicted the difficulties that gazelles might pose to the railway. He says the company is now working with the UAE's environment agency to deal with the situation. People too are a problem for operations. Campers, which head out into the desert at weekends, often hundreds of kilometres from civilisation, have presented difficulties, mostly because they have never seen a railway before and are not aware of the potential dangers. "You have to literally visit their houses, farms, and schools to warn them about the danger of going on the track," Malak says.

The remoteness of the project meant that providing a suitable environment for its employees to live and work was another major consideration. Etihad Rail DB employs approximately 200 people and Malak says work is underway through a private partnership to build an accommodation complex, including schools, for its employees and their families, which will make it more attractive for those currently commuting from Abu Dhabi to live closer to their place of work.

"We hit two birds with one stone," he says. "First we are providing proper accommodation and something we like for our employees, and secondly we are giving back to society because we are doing it through investors in the region where the railway is located so it benefits their situation."

Workforce development is a major focus for the UAE's railway programme because of the lack of domestic railway experience. The Centre of Excellence for Applied Research and Training signed a memorandum of understanding with Thales in 2014 to develop a new training academy to provide Emiratis with high-level professional and academic training programmes. In addition, as part of the joint venture agreement, DB is allowing access to courses at its training academy, while Etihad Rail DB established a human resources excellence programme which is enabling UAE nationals to gain on-the-job experience.

"In this programme they come to Germany and we teach them different disciplines, including in technical and administrative areas," Warbanoff says. "They team up with the people in the DB group and they get to know exactly how we work. Many of them who have returned to the UAE are still in touch with DB and are continuing to exchange knowledge."

Strong position

Malak says such initiatives are critical for the UAE as it begins its railway journey and he says in the long-term it will place Etihad Rail DB in a strong position to secure additional business.

Indeed Malak says the company has ambitious plans for development and has identified three key areas for expansion: carrying additional commodities on the existing line, operating other services and lines as the UAE network grows, and operating services in other GCC states as they come online.

"Etihad Rail DB as a joint venture is very well-positioned to win some of these things over the next three or four years," he says. "We understand what we need in the Middle East and North Africa as much as anyone else, and obviously DB demonstrates that it understands other countries. It will require a lot of work, but that's the vision and the ambition."

Despite recent slowdowns in some key projects, most notably the second phase of the UAE network, and in Oman, the Middle East rail market is estimated to be worth around $US 80bn. As well as presenting opportunities to Etihad Rail DB, this is a potential boon for suppliers. Yet this remains potential. For existing operators the relative small size of the industry in the region means that many manufacturers have yet to commit to establishing local facilities, meaning that there is a very limited supply chain.

"In Europe if you are missing a spare part, or if you are missing a technician, there are plenty of places to get one," Malak says. "In the UAE, where the railway always has to be available because of the commodity that we are carrying, and because we have a demanding customer, we have to procure things in advance and have higher stocks than you normally would have because we don't have the suppliers here, even for the smallest pieces of equipment. Everything has to be done in-house or you have to import it."

Clearly this is not just a challenge for Etihad Rail DB but for all of the railways currently or planning to operate in the region and must be addressed.

While Malak says he regularly attends conferences and events to talk with and establish relationships with suppliers, he is keen to develop these connections with the backing of the entire region.

"With the current project we may attract some suppliers and get them interested despite what they may view as limited demand compared with what you have in Europe," he says. "But we can add on the Dubai RTA, the operator of the metro and tram, SRO and SAR in Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which is also building a railway. If we can get all these companies to come together we could end up convincing lots of suppliers to locate offices here and take the Middle East a lot more seriously."

Malak laughs off suggestions that he is a champion for rail, saying that people can call him what they like. Yet he is adamant of the importance of seeing the bigger picture and trying to secure a better working environment, not just for Etihad Rail DB, but the entire Middle East.

"We are not just building a railway we're building an industry and everything we do now sets a precedent for the future," he says.