Thursday, June 03, 2010

Time to lay tracks

Railways are a need, not an option for the Middle East
Commentary - Executive magazine

An undated postcard shows the old Rayak train station in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

The Middle East and the United States have a lot in common when it comes to transportation. Both places have a love affair with the automobile and both had long-distance train networks well over 100 years ago. Both now also have an over abundance of private vehicles clogging up the roads while railways and public transport systems are substandard, if they exist at all.

There is a clear correlation that can be drawn here, between the rise of the car and the demise of rail transportation. But what is more noticeable on a macro-level is how the Middle East and the US stand out from nearly everywhere else in neglecting and underfunding their respective railway networks. Around the world, from South America to South Korea, investment in railways, metros and high-speed trains has been ongoing for decades.

In recent years a growing web of tracks has enmeshed the globe, with China alone earmarking $300 billion over the next decade to build 25,000 kilometers of high-speed railroads. By comparison, the US has just 735 kilometers of high-speed track. The Middle East has, well, zero.

The tide seems to be turning in the US, which had long practiced a policy of “starving the beast” — underfund the railways then shut them down due to inefficiency — until the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 allocated $13 billion to improve the railways over the next five years.

It's been a long time coming but the Middle East is also finally undergoing a railway renaissance. Jordan and Syria are both reinvesting in train lines that were built in the early 1900s and once linked Damascus to Mecca, part of the famous Hijaz Railway.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf Cooperation Council investment in railways could reach $109 billion over the next decade, according to a report by the Kuwait Financial Center. Saudi Arabia is expanding its railway network, which will include a $1.8 billion high-speed railway between Mecca and Medina; Qatar is spending nearly $25 billion on railways and a metro; and the United Arab Emirates is mulling a railway network to compliment the Dubai and Abu Dhabi metros.

All three countries would then link to the 2,177 kilometer GCC rail network slated to open in 2017. With an estimated cost of $25 billion, the network will run from Kuwait through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE before the last stop in Oman, or possibly Yemen. This will be money well spent, as an effective railway will better connect the people and economies of the region and reduce the environmental impact of travel.

What is remarkable is how long it has taken the GCC to roll out a regional track, despite its obvious benefits, and to not have done so as a priority over other major infrastructure projects. The same incredulity can be applied to Lebanon, with the government squandering the opportunity in the early 1990s to implement a comprehensive railway network alongside all the other post-civil war reconstruction work. A train line running down the coast between Tyre, Beirut and Tripoli would be a dream; connecting Beirut to Damascus beyond a fantasy.

But Lebanon may yet take part in the Middle East's railway revival. The French government announced in May that they plan to fund a study to rehabilitate Lebanon's coastal railways, which would be a start. The traffic situation around Beirut is appalling, and is set to get even worse as more cars pile onto the roads. It is the same in pretty much every major city in the region.

The public will be hoping that for once, talk of improving Lebanon’s transport network goes beyond the planning stage. But judging by some of the discourse on transportation heard in Beirut of late, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Earlier in the year Beirut’s muhafez (governor) came up with a creative idea to solve the city's traffic problems: sidewalks should be no wider than one meter. And in 2005, during discussions of the national master plan, investment in public transport was dismissed with the claim: “Lebanese like their cars and don't like public transport.”

Considering the problems that the region’s cities face in terms of congestion, pollution and infrastructure, governments need to get serious about public transport planning. Their citizens deserve better than smaller sidewalks and clapped-out old taxis: it’s time to wean people off their love affair with cars and start laying tracks.

PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services

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