Andreas Schwilling, a partner at Roland Berger, Ajit Kumar Mishra, additional GM for the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation India, with the moderator during a session yesterday. Image Credit: Zarina Fernandes/ Gulf News

Dubai: Ultra-high-speed magnetic levitation (maglev) trains travelling at up to 450km/h could reduce the travel time between Dubai and Abu Dhabi to just 25 minutes — and they’d be cheaper to run than regular trains, the Middle East Rail Conference heard on Wednesday.

Niklaus Koenig, CEO of maglev developers SwissRapide AG, said operating costs of maglev trains were around a fifth of the operating costs of a traditional high-speed train.

“We think there is tremendous potential here [in the Middle East]. It’s interesting to hear there are a lot of commuters between Abu Dhabi and Dubai. We see potential to connect both international airports as well as the downtown areas of Dubai and Abu Dhabi — that’s about 145km. Travel time would be about 25 minutes and capacity almost unlimited.”

SwissRapide have conducted feasibility studies on projects in Switzerland, and are bidding for a concession linking Zurich and Winterthur under a public-private partnership.

Although his company hadn’t conducted a feasibility study for an Abu Dhabi-Dubai maglev link, he said, “The distance is about the same as Zurich-Bern. You’re talking about €10 billion (Dh40.46 billion) for that. The cost here I think would be significantly lower because wages are lower here, plus with a single track you can bring those costs down. That gives you a rough estimate. That’s for the complete system including trains, including stations.”

Maglev relies on magnetic repulsion to float the train above the rail. The limitations on its speed — aside from the distance between stations — come down to air pressure, streamlining and the energy used to propel the train.

Koenig said such trains had more in common with the airline industry than the rail industry.

Koenig highlighted three possibilities for maglev routes in the Middle East. In addition to an Abu-Dhabi link, he suggested a 450km route between Riyadh, Damman and Bahrain and the Metro project linking Muscat’s old town and airport could be built as maglev monorails.

In an interview after his keynote presentation, Koenig said, “If we can get a feasibility study, great, but my pitch is really to awaken interest here in something we think would be fantastic for the region.”

In a question-and-answer session after his presentation, Koenig said SwissRapide relied on their business cases to bring in private financing for projects.

“I think it’s very difficult at this point in time to find financing for giga-projects, where we’re going into the billions or tens of billions. I think from my experience in the Middle East, I think particularly with the Abu Dhabi-Dubai project, my feeling is that the business case would be there, perhaps not at the beginning, but when we see the increase of ridership that we’ve seen presented in the last two days on the Dubai Metro and other projects... we’ve been seeing rises of 5 to 7 per cent. I think the same effect would take place.”

He added that maglev worked well in sandy conditions, and was unaffected by sand on the track, though he said the effects on the train exteriors would need to be examined.