THE viaducts that carry the Hedjaz Railway through the hills of Amman stand as testament to an ambitious regional railway project conceived over a century ago. The Hedjaz Railway was a triumph of cooperation as much as engineering, as Muslims around the world contributed funds to drive a 1322km line through the desert, and establish a new pilgrimage route linking Damascus and the Mediterranean with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

In his history of the line The Hedjaz Railway - the construction of a new hope, M Metin Hugalu notes "symbolically the arrival of the first train in Mecca would signal the dawn of a new, prosperous era for the Arabian Peninsula. Therefore it would be a worthwhile project in numerous ways." The line was completed in 1913 but the onset of the First World War meant its status as a through route was short-lived. Nonetheless, its political, military and social impact on the region has endured, and as Hugalu concludes, it remains a symbol of cooperation and Muslim brotherhood.

A century on, the Arabian Peninsula is witnessing an equally remarkable period of railway construction. The isolated Saudi network is rapidly extending north towards the Jordanian border, while to the east the development of the Gulf States Railway will provide new links to the developing networks of Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, and Oman. As the regional railway system takes shape, the prospect of a connection to Jordan, and eventually Turkey, looks increasingly within reach.

jordanFollowing the completion of a feasibility study by BNP Paribas in 2010, the Jordanian government is developing plans for an 897km standard-gauge national railway network with links to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria, which will be constructed primarily for freight traffic but with provision for the future introduction of passenger trains.

The Jordan National Railway Project (JNRP) involves the development of three corridors. The main north-south spine of the network will be a 509km line connecting the Red Sea port of Aqaba with the capital Amman, the industrial city of Zarqa and the Syrian border, paralleling the route of the 1050mm-gauge Jordan Hedjaz Railway which it would replace. According to the Ministry of Transport, the total cost of constructing the line is expected to be around Dinars 1.84bn ($US 1.39bn).

As Jordan's only sea port, Aqaba will be an important hub for the railway network. The city is a gateway for freight destined for Iraq, and volumes are increasing as the political situation in Iraq stabilises. The north-south line will also carry crude oil destined for the refineries at Zarqa as well as imported cereals and containers.

Aqaba is also the main export point for phosphates and sulphur from mines in southern Jordan, which are linked to the port by the Aqaba Railway Corporation (ARC) line from Ma'an. With the completion of New Aqaba port next year, which will include the relocation of the phosphate terminal, early construction work will be focused in this area of the country.

Tenders will be invited soon for the so-called Mini Project, a Dinars 53m scheme which involves building a new 28.5km standard-gauge single-track line linking the phosphate mine at Eshidiya with the ARC line south of Ma'an, conversion of the existing 1050mm-gauge Ma'an - Aqaba line to dual gauge, and the construction of a short extension to a new phosphate transhipment terminal south of Aqaba. The project also includes the construction of a balloon loop at Eshidiya to allow continuous loading of phosphate trains. Locomotives and wagons for the Mini Project will come from the existing ARC fleet and will be refurbished and regauged for the launch of standard-gauge operations.

Jordan's transport minister Mr Alaa Batayneh told delegates at the International Union of Railways' (UIC) Regional Assembly of the Middle East High Level Conference in Amman on November 5 that feasibility studies and due diligence had been completed and land acquisition had started on the initial phase.

A second line will branch off the north-south axis near Zarqa, following the route of Highway 10 for around 290km to reach the Iraqi frontier near Tarbil Border Crossing. Iraq has completed feasibility studies on the construction of a connecting line from Ramadi to Tarbil and a preliminary agreement on the link was signed by representatives of the two governments in 2011, although the current status of this project is unclear.

The third section of the JNRP is a 90.5km link from a junction with the Zarqa - Tarbil line east of Amman to the Saudi border near of Haditha, where it will meet the Saudi North South Railway to Riyadh and the Persian Gulf. This final segment will be crucial to realising Jordan's goal of becoming a transit country for freight between Europe and the Gulf States. All of the lines will be diesel-operated with a maximum train length of 3000m.

The total cost of the construction is Dinars 2.4bn at 2010 prices and the government expects the network to generate an internal rate of return of 16%. The JNRP will be implemented on a build-transfer-operate basis, and a 100% state-owned company, Jordan Railway Corporation (JRC), has been established which will finance the network through government debt and oversee construction. The operation and maintenance of the network will be tendered as a PPP concession with a minimum 30-year term. The concessionaire will acquire all locomotives and rolling stock, with an initial investment of around $US 550m. Mr Laith Dababneh, assistant secretary general of the Ministry of Transport told delegates at the conference in Amman that ARC will be merged into the new companies.

With the focus on transit traffic, interoperability has been a key consideration from an early stage of the JNRP's development. Jordan and its neighbours signed a multilateral agreement in 2003 which set minimum technical standards for international rail corridors, and Jordan is an associate member of the Intergovernmental Organisation for International Carriage by Rail. JRC is also working with the European Union's Euromed project team, which is helping to establish a national railway safety authority and ensure the network meets international standards.

Naturally a project on this scale is susceptible to broader economic and political developments, and the JNRP is to some extent at the mercy of the current turbulence in the region. The long-term impact of the savage conflict in Syria and the upheaval that will inevitably follow in its aftermath makes the prospects for transit freight traffic to and from Europe difficult to predict. Jordan is also grappling with its own financial challenges, which have been exacerbated by the banking crisis and the global economic downturn.

In an effort to reduce the current high levels of public debt and qualify for financial assistance from the IMF, the government has begun implementing spending cuts, and while the outlook for 2013 is slightly better than it was a year ago with 3.5% growth in GDP forecast, fiscal restraint looks set to remain a defining theme. Batayneh told the conference in Amman on November 5 that the first phase is facing delays and on November 12 the Jordan Times reported that the cabinet had suspended land acquisition for the project until the condition of the treasury becomes clearer.

Despite these difficulties the JNRP still enjoys considerable support from Jordan's Arabian neighbours. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has offered to back the project as part a $US 5bn development package for Jordan agreed by its members in December 2011. As part of this, Kuwait transferred a $US 250m grant to the Jordan Central Bank in October last year. According to the Jordan Times, Kuwait is expected to contribute around $US 80m towards the JNRP and $US 110m to the planned Amman - Zarqa light rail project.

Like the Hedjaz Railway a century before, international collaboration and a shared vision will be driving factors in the realisation of Jordan's standard-gauge railway plans, and in time the benefits of the project look set to extend well beyond its borders, improving Iraq's links with the Red Sea and bringing the emerging railways of the Arabian Peninsula a step closer to Europe.