WHILE a number of major milestones have been reached since the United Arab Emirates launched its Dirhams 40bn ($US 10.9bn) railway construction programme three years ago, 2011 was perhaps the most significant year yet in the short history of railways in the UAE.

For a start by the time 2012 rolled around the national railway had a new name and a new identity. Etihad Rail was launched in May under a new logo which incorporates the UAE flag and represents the railway's national vision.

A flurry of contracts for the first line followed the relaunch. And with the winning contractors having now broken ground on the 266km dedicated freight line from the port of Ruwais to Habshan and Shah, work is on schedule for operations to start on the initial Ruwais - Habshan section in early 2013. Complete operations on the entire the route will follow by the end of 2014, fulfilling the first phase of the Etihad vision.

A Parsons and Aecom joint venture is managing construction of the first line with a contract worth Dirhams 3.3bn awarded to a consortium of Italian firms Saipem and Tecnimont, and UAE-based Dodsal Engineering and Construction for civil and trackwork in November. This contract comprises the design procurement and construction of railway infrastructure, including earthworks, trackbed grading, bridge construction, installation of communications systems and construction of the depot at Mirfa, as well as testing and commissioning.

In January the consortium selected Ansaldo STS to supply signalling, automation and telecommunications systems, including installation of ETCS Level 2 on the first phase. The estimated 650,000 concrete sleepers required for the line will be manufactured at a plant in the UAE by PCM Strescon Overseas Ventures, India.

Manufacture of the first rolling stock is also underway. Etihad selected EMD to supply seven SD70ACS heavy-haul locomotives which will be delivered this year. The locomotives are similar to those ordered by Saudi Railways Company (SAR) for use on the North-South Railway and will be deployed to haul up to 22,000 tonnes of granulated sulphur every day from launch customer Abu Dhabi National Oil Company's (Adnoc) gas fields in Shah and Habshan. Etihad also ordered 240 covered wagons from CSR, China, in September to serve the line.

In addition to transporting sulphur via rail, Adnoc signed an agreement in October to transport up to 7 million tonnes of oil on the network annually. Emirates Steel has also signed a memorandum of understanding for the future transport of steel by rail, as has Arkan Building Materials for transport of its raw and finished goods. Similarly Al Dahra Agricultural Company signed an agreement in January to transport hay, the UAE's most commonly used animal feed, as soon as the second phase of the network opens. Studies have also shown that there is substantial future demand from companies transporting ceramics, sand and sugar.

Al Dahra will be the first customer to use containers on the railway, and it is hoped that up to 15 million TEUs will be carried by 2030. Rail is projected to reduce truck trips by 18% by 2020 and 21% by 2030, with general containers estimated to make up 65% of the 230 million tonnes of freight that will be transported on the network by 2030 for a 38% overall share of freight transport.

Studies conducted by Etihad Rail estimate that the Ruwais terminal will have demand for 12.7 million tonnes of freight per annum by 2030; Musaffah port will handle 56.6 million tonnes; Khalifa port 15.1 million tonnes; Dubai Sharjan 17.2 million tonnes; and Port Seqr 6.6 million tonnes. Neighbouring Oman on the proposed GCC network is projected to have demand for 15 million tonnes of freight, while other GCC countries beyond the border with Saudi Arabia in the west are projected to generate 12.4 million tonnes.

Phase 2

As construction on the first phase of the network ramps up, Etihad Rail is beginning to shift its attention to the developments included in phase 2. These will be carried out in four design-and-build infrastructure contracts, and once completed will make cross-country rail transport possible in the UAE.

Preliminary engineering is now complete and prequalification bids were invited in November for three tenders encompassing design and construction of infrastructure and systems.

Once complete the projects will extend the existing line 137km from Ruwais west to Ghweifat on the Saudi Arabian border and 190km east from Tarif to Al Ain on the border with Oman. This line will include a branch to Mussafah and will diverge close to Al Khalifa on a 186km route to Jebel Ali. This section will include branches to Abu Dhabi Airport and Khalifa Port. Construction is scheduled to begin by the end of this year and will be completed by 2016. Further extensions to Dubai, Ras Al Khamain and Khor Fakkan are included in Phase 3, with work scheduled to take place between 2016 and 2018.

The standard-gauge network is being built to a variety of international standards, but is predominately embracing American standards for freight, including 32-tonne axleloads. Initially it will operate entirely with diesel traction. However, Mr Graeme Overall, Etihad Rail's business development director, says that the lines are being constructed to allow sufficient clearance for catenary and double-stack container trains, but only when traffic volumes justify such an investment.

Passenger services are also envisioned as part of the second phase, although plans for a dedicated commuter line running along the coast between Abu Dhabi and Dubai were scrapped last year enabling Etihad to firmly focus on the freight railway. However, Overall admits that rail needs to provide "greater urban penetration" in the UAE and initially this will be achieved through a mixed-traffic railway. Long passing loops are considered as the solution for operations and Overall says that the railway is designed with these enhancements in mind.

The UAE government is funding much of the railway construction programme, and granted a request for Etihad Rail to borrow Dirhams 4.7bn ($US 1.28bn) to finance construction of the first phase. Overall would not be drawn on the precise finance structure for the project at February's Middle East Rail conference in Dubai but says that Etihad Rail remains open to other financial models for future phases.

"We are willing to work with a private financier or public-private partner that is prepared to invest in the infrastructure and elements of the rolling stock fleet," he says.

Inevitably constructing a railway in the desert includes many more challenges than a conventional line. Overall says that the main concern is wind-blown sand and a variety of techniques are being trialled to prevent this from happening, including building substantial earthworks adjacent to the line, installing fences and planting vegetation. Similar concerns exist with rolling stock.

"We are doing our best to mitigate the impact of sand on operations," Overall says. "We have a good relationship with SAR which is battling this same issue, and our locomotives will use the same pulse filtration devices that they are using which keeps very fine sand out of the working areas."

Of course one of the major challenges in a country with no railway history is getting people used to an unfamiliar mode of transport. Nevertheless the early signs are positive. A survey of companies that transport containers by road indicated that 81.2% would use rail over road if facilities were installed at future intermodal terminals.

Yet with the railway set to dramatically change the landscape across the country, many still have to be convinced. Community seminars are being held in the western region to raise awareness about the project and its future impact on the region. Overall does though admit that this is a continuing process, and one that will follow Etihad's progress over the next few years as construction steps up.

"Most of the people are very positive," he says. "They see the rail network as changing the landscape for the better, and largely view rail as a more secure mode than road transport. Of course there are some that still need to be convinced, but in many ways we're very lucky because we always have got a good story to tell. However, we shouldn't assume that people always know what that story is."