Etihad Rail/Opinion
Etihad Rail will not only help transform our economic life; it will add some romance to it Image Credit: Gulf News

No transport mode is as romantic as a train. As long as they existed, trains were part of world literature from the late 18th century most probably. Great novels and poems have been written about the trains and stories that occur in them. Love stories, happy stories, sad stories, and mystery stories.

On the other hand, I can hardly recall compelling literature on aeroplanes, buses, or cars. There is something about trains that ignites the imagination and sparks genius. “Trains go where cars can and cannot: into canyons, along rivers, through mountains, sidling up to back yards and into town centers. So much about trains is visionary,” notes American author Ruth Levy Guyer, who says she is “daydreaming about train travel: frozen lakes and midnight sun on the Oslo-to-Arctic route; gold mines and the vast outback along Australia’s Indian Pacific line.”

The Night Mail, a classic poem by the English poet, W.H. Auden (1907-1973) is universally considered one of the greatest works of poesy composition in English literature in the last century. It is about a train that carried the mail in Scotland:

This is the night mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, The shop at the corner, the girl next door.

Trains in the Arab world

Trains have found their way into Arab literature too. One of the iconic Arab poetry gems in the last century is ‘The Rail and Hamad’, written in the early 1950s by legendary Iraqi poet Mudaffar Al Nuwab. It tells a true story of a broken heart; a love story that didn’t go well, and outdated cruel traditions. He said that he was on-board a train that travelled from Baghdad to the south when he noticed a sad-looking woman in her 40s.

When the train approached a small town called Om Shamat, there were tears on her face. He had to ask. She ran away from that village 20 years earlier because she suspected her family planned to kill her because she had fallen in love with a relative and refused to marry the person the family had chosen for her. The way it was narrated by Al Nuwab, the story was compelling, heart wrenching. However, the train is the main character in the poem, which has since become a symbol of rebellion against outdated customs.

However, the trains are not only about romance. It can be argued that today’s world, with all its technological advances and wide-ranging connectivity, is a product of the rail. The trains shaped the world and planted the seeds of globalisation almost 250 years ago.

Imagine, for example, Canada without the rail. The unity of this splendid vast country would not have been possible in the first place had not been for the steam-powered railway, which was developed in the 19th century. The first railway built in Canada was the Champlain and Saint Lawrence Railroad from La Prairie on the St. Lawrence River to St. Johns on the Richelieu River — funded by Montreal businessmen such as John Molson, that line was opened officially on 21 July 1836. Three decades later, in 1867, Canada was declared a united country.

Significance of train

Canada was changed forever. From a vast land with poor roads and waterways that were frozen almost 5 months a year to a very well connected country. The railway changed the transportation and the movement of people and goods. It helped speed up the industrialisation, eased the settlement of immigrants, made it possible for the federal and local governments to embark on development projects.

A nation was built by the railway, literally. If you know the enormous size of Canada (9.985 million square km that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean on the East to the Pacific on the west and from the United States in the south to the Arctic Ocean on the north), you can appreciate the role of the railway in making it possible for a person or a mail to travel from eastern Canada to British Columbia in the far west.

The evolution of the US is a similar story. The unification of this powerful country would have also been impossible without the railway.

This life-changing, powerful tool is set to reshape another splendid country, the UAE. As announced last week, Etihad Rail, the Dh50 billion strategic project, will develop a passenger service in its second stage of construction. The first stage, the freight service, has already started operation in 2016.

Shaikh Theyab Bin Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s Court, and Chairman of Etihad Rail, says the UAE Railways Programme is a key milestone in the road transport sector and a true reflection to ‘The Principles of the 50’, the vision of development in the next 50 years.

Etihad Rail was established in June 2009 under Federal Law No. 2, with the mandate to “manage the development, construction and operation of the UAE’s national freight and passenger railway network”. The network will link the main centres of population and industry of the country, and also to be part of the proposed GCC railway network.

A landmark project

The commercial activity, Stage One, began in January 2016 and has since carried “more than 40 million tonnes of granulated sulphur for the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc) — the equivalent of around 2.4 million truck trips. To measure the positive impact on the environment, one single train journey removes approximately 300 trucks from the road, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 70 to 80 per cent (compared to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by trucks required to transport the same load). The Stage One, with a length of 246km, currently links the gasfields at Shah and Habshan to the port of Ruwais where the granulated sulphur is processed for export.

Meanwhile, Stage Two, which is under construction, will extend 605 kilometres from Ghuweifat, on the border with Saudi Arabia, to Fujairah on the UAE east coast, and to be followed by future route additions. The network will connect the country via Abu Dhabi, Kizad (Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi), Khalifa Port, Jebel Ali Port, Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah, while linking with the existing line at Ruwais, “effectively uniting the major industrial ports and trading centres of the country,” according to the project announcement.

When the entire project is complete, “the volume of goods transported across the network will increase from 7 million tonnes per year on Stage One to more than 50 million tonnes- replacing more than 5,600 on-road truck trips per day. By the year 2030, the project will have created more than 9000. It is operated by Emirati cadre.

As for the return on investment, Etihad Rail is expected to create economic opportunities worth up to Dh200 billion — the estimated value of reducing carbon emissions is Dh21 billion, the saving from road maintenance is Dh8 billion, potential tourism returns are estimated at Dh23 billion during the next 50 years, and an estimated addition to the UAE economy that is valued at Dh23 billion.

The Rail Passenger Services will meanwhile revolutionise the transportation system across the UAE literally, “allowing passengers to travel from Abu Dhabi to Dubai in 50 minutes, and from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah in 100 minutes.” Those trains will be running at a speed of 200km per hour and are expected to carry more than 36.5 million passengers annually by 2030.

So it is not just money and carbon footprints we will be saving. We will save a more valuable commodity, time. Instead the two hours driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi on one of the cross- Emirates highways, along the trucks and the speeding minivans, one can sit and enjoy the train ride in less than half the time. You can spend that quality time with your family, with friends or a book. You will be meeting new people. You will have your own train story.

The railway changed the world and contributed the most to its economic and industrial evolution. But it also has had a great impact on culture. The reading habit was developed mostly on the train.

In the UAE, I expect the railway to help in developing this important part of life. The Etihad Rail will thus not only help transform our economic life; it will add some romance to it.