Thursday, December 29, 2011

The GCC Railway Network – Opportunities and Challenges

Even in a region where larger-than-life infrastructure projects have become almost commonplace, the proposed pan-GCC Railway network evokes a grandeur that stirs the imagination. Scheduled to be completed in 2019 at a cost of US$ 25 billion, the GCC Railway will connect the six GCC nations of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, helping to forge deeper economic and political ties within the Gulf as it transports people and goods across borders.

This article provides an overview of the GCC Railway scheme, and discusses some key legal issues which are likely to arise thereunder.

Initial Stages

The GCC Railway, will be created by the interconnection of each GCC country’s national rail network. These national railways are still in their early stages. Two countries, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, already have a head start. The former operates a rail line between Riyadh and the Persian Gulf port city of Dammam, and has commenced construction on the North-South Rail which will connect Riyadh with the northwestern city of Al Hadeetha. The latter boasts the Dubai metro, and has begun building the Union Railway which will link the seven Emirates.

The other GCC countries, currently in the planning and design phases, are quickly getting up to speed. In the Sultanate of Oman, the current plan calls for the national railway to be designed in three phases. The first phase would be a 230-kilometer rail line from the northern industrial city of Sohar to the capital Muscat. The second phase would be a 560-kilometer line from Muscat to the port city of Duqm, and the third phase would involve extending the Duqm line to Salalah in southern Oman.

The Omani press has reported that the Ministry of Transport and Communications recently floated a tender for a design and project supervision consultancy contract, with the goal of completing the design phase by 2013 and completing construction by 2018.

Inter-Country Coordination – Challenges, Opportunities and Legal Issues

Building the GCC rail network will naturally require an abundance of engineering skill and manual labor – but it will also require more: a common framework that will enable the six national rail networks to integrate and operate together as a single, unified GCC rail system. Such coordination should consider a number of issues, including the following:
• Technical issues – the various GCC national railways will need to have uniform standards for the gauge size of tracks and the locomotives which can run on these tracks, particularly along cross-border rail segments;
• Safety issues – of crucial importance, each railway’s signal and communication systems must be compatible and integrated;
• Commercial issues – for example, agreeing to a common fare structure across the GCC; and
• Legal and regulatory issues – implement a joint customs system to allow a single point of entry into the GCC and a uniform custom tariff for imported goods.

The Need for a Coordinated GCC-Level Regulatory Approach

Moreover, the six member nations would do well to provide a GCC-level regulatory and legal framework under which the respective national authorities could deliberate and agree on technical, safety, commercial and legal issues. Thus, the GCC Railway project will require not just capital and manpower, but also a large measure of political unity and skillful diplomacy over the coming years. But if the region’s successful development of large-scale air and sea transportation in recent years is any indication, the prospect of a pan-GCC Railway network is a goal that should be realized.