Our coverage this month of the large number of rail and transit projects either underway or planned in the Middle East clearly demonstrates the transformation taking place in a region that was virtually devoid of railways. Rail now dominates transport spending with just over half of the $US 170 million to be spent on transport projects by the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council earmarked for rail. Middle East rail investment is being driven by the desire to unlock the region's vast untapped mineral wealth and provide a new sustainable transport backbone for freight and passenger traffic.

The first phase of Saudi Arabia's massive North-South Railway project opens at the end of this year, followed two years later by the region's first high-speed line. Work is due to start next year on the first line of a planned 1500km rail network serving the United Arab Emirates, which in turn will pave the way for the long-planned Gulf Railway.
In Africa, construction is underway on the continent's first high-speed line linking Tangiers with Kénitra in Morocco, while rail transport is set to return to Sierra Leone as part of a project to extract iron-ore and ship it to the coast. Add to this the huge project to build a rail network in Libya and the initial success of South Africa's Gautrain project, and we have the start of a rail revival in Africa.

In Europe, France has declared that rail will become the number one priority for transport investment in line with the country's declaration to reduce CO2 emissions by 100 million tonnes over the next 50 years. To back this up, a new €170 billion national transport infrastructure plan is being drawn up of which 52% will be dedicated to rail. In the meantime, French Rail Network (RFF) has unveiled plans to invest €4 billion in the Paris region and has awarded a PPP concession for the 340km Tours - Bordeaux high-speed line.

The French government wants to see a huge transfer of passengers and freight from road to rail as a result of these initiatives, but this will require a change in attitude by national operator SNCF. Individual high-speed services are excellent, but regional passenger services are only being developed piecemeal and there is a general failure to operate services as an integrated network. The quality of SNCF's railfreight services remains poor, and SNCF seems more concerned with developing its road freight business which is seen as an easy option compared with getting the unions to implement much-needed changes in working practices.

In addition, France has the worst track record of any European Union member state for implementing the First Railway Package designed to liberalise the European railfreight market. Stifling competition is not the way to increase traffic.

In the Americas, preliminary works are underway for Florida's Orlando - Tampa high-speed line, hopefully the first of several such projects in the United States, and Brazil is pushing at breakneck speed to launch its high-speed project although its excessive haste could backfire as the promoters have been ordered to repeat some geological studies. The decision to invest in long-distance passenger rail transport represents a major change in national policy in both countries, particularly Brazil which, for such a huge country, has only two such services remaining.

China is also a country in a hurry as it forges ahead at incredible speed to build its massive high-speed network. As we report this month, tracklaying has started on the 1318km Beijing - Shanghai line, which the Chinese say they will complete within five months.

Mr Gerhard Schulz, Arcadis' chief supervising engineer on the Wuhan - Guangzhou project, speaking at the recent Global Transport Forum high-speed rail conference in Barcelona, gave an insight into how such an incredible feat is possible. He says that huge numbers of people, such as farmers living along the route of a new line, are co-opted onto the project and trained in specific tasks.

China's autocratic management helps to achieve results, and target completion dates cannot be changed which keeps projects on time. Extensive use is made of standardised solutions for structures such as bridges and viaducts, which while not particularly aesthetically pleasing save considerable time and money.

Speaking at the same conference, Mr Alex Tourski, deputy director of High Speed Rail Lines, Russia, which is planning the Moscow - St Petersburg high-speed project, made an interesting point. "We realise the number of countries that want to build high-speed lines is greater than the number of banks and construction companies able to realise them, so we need to prepare our project well to be able to compete for such scarce resources."

Who would have thought just a few years ago that rail projects would be challenging the world's engineering and financial resources? How the fortunes of rail have changed.