When fully completed by 2030, the new metro network in Doha will link up with five long-distance lines as well as a light-rail system, facilitating not only better transport, but also increasing trade between the region by up to 6 per cent on a yearly basis
A city is far more than the sum of its architectural components, no matter how visually stunning those showpiece buildings may be. That much is certainly true of Doha, capital of Qatar, the country with the highest per capita income on the planet. Rich or poor, people still must go out and about to work and play and learn and observe – activities that require movement. In this former pearl fishing Gulf backwater that now controls the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves, a major effort is underway to see a completely modern public transportation network up and running by the year 2030.
“We believe there is a tremendous economic benefit in having a public transport system in Qatar and throughout the region. There is a tremendous social impact and many gains and benefits to be had,” says Abdulla Abdulaziz T. Al-Subaie, Managing Director of Qatar Rail (QR) the entity created to supervise the design, construction and commissioning of an integrated network of urban metro lines, light rail and long-haul passenger and freight trains.
The aim is to facilitate movement between the urban heart of Doha, its fast expanding suburbs and distant cities, and between Qatar itself and other member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). To forward-looking decision makers like Mr Al-Subaie, enhancing regional connectivity is essential to a secure and sustainable future for his country.
“Trade between GCC countries is expected to grow by 5 to 6 per cent on a yearly basis. The existence of a regional rail network will help not only Qatar but also the entire region take greater advantage of this connectivity by integrating our infrastructure assets. For example, by having rail, I would consider Qatar as not having just one port— it would be like having six or seven. Connecting to this major infrastructure you have the option to move goods to or from the port of Kuwait or the Dubai free zone.”
Five long-distance lines (one for passengers only, one for freight and three mixed traffic routes) are to be constructed in stages, with the first convoys scheduled to enter service in 2019. When completed, the network will cover 486 kilometres (km), linking population centres and industrial zones in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman as well as connecting cities in the north and west of Qatar to Doha. With high-speed passenger trains clocking up to 270km per hour, the ease of travel is certain to stimulate regional commerce and QR expects to have no problem in meeting its target of 24,000 passenger trips per day by 2031.
The project’s light rail/rapid transit component is centred on Lusail, the spectacular urban development under construction on an artificial island located a few kilometres to the north of Doha. By name at least, Lusail will be familiar to sports fans as the site of the huge new covered stadium being built to host the opening ceremony and closing match of the 2022 World Cup soccer championships. This is where fierce sunlight beating down on canopied terraces and parking shelters will be transformed into energy that powers an innovative climate control system meant to keep some 80,000 football fans cool and cosy and maintain temperature on the open-air pitch at 26º Celsius.
Lusail is where QR planners will have laid down four lines of trolley track covering nearly 40kms. On those tracks, the latest generation of “no catenary” streetcars will make 37 stops as they wind through the custom-built city planned for a population of 200,000. All lines converge at the dual-use metro and tram stations at Kegftaifya and Lusail Central, putting the capital’s attractions within convenient, car-free reach of the 200,000 people expected to settle in the new city. At an average speed of 29 km per hour, trams need less than two minutes to advance from one stop to the next along itineraries mapped out so as to provide maximum access to the residential districts.
It is worth noting that the people in charge of all this are taking all the time they need to get the job done right, and without pressure from above to make sure it gets done in time for the World Cup opener. Mr Al-Subai says, “Of course, our main purpose is to serve the economy and contribute to the country’s development, but we haven’t forgotten we are hosting the World Cup in 2022 and how this public transport could be used as an integral part and support for the event, and any other big events the country could host in the future.”
So the proper context for assessing an undertaking of this scale is not the 2022 World Cup, but Qatar’s National Vision 2030, a master plan for transitioning to a knowledge-based society in which the expertise in people’s heads contributes as much to growing and diversifying the economy as do the hydrocarbons in the ground.
“Its goals can be achieved only by diversifying the economic base,” notes Mr Al-Subaie. “Investments ensure that the nation develops a world-class infrastructure backbone. Transportation is one such area, along with power, water, healthcare, education and information technology.”
The most talked-about component of that world-class infrastructure lies buried 20 meters under the surface of the earth where the Doha Metro is right on schedule for completion of its first phase by late 2019. Around half of its 113 km length of subterranean tunnels have already been hollowed out, advancing at a rate of 14-21m per day. To make it happen, QR imported 21 ultra-powerful tunnelling machines from Germany and put them to work all at the same time, thereby earning an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Largest Number of Tunnel Boring Machines Operating Simultaneously in a Single Project.” Mr Al-Subaie sees that distinction as more than merely anecdotal.
“Since we embarked on this journey, we’ve committed ourselves, our resources, our partners and our technologies to delivering world-class projects with speed and efficiency. This recognition by Guinness World Records is a hard-earned and well-deserved testament to the collective power of our teams, our partners and our stakeholders, who never lost sight of what is needed to deliver our ambitious plans. This certificate is only a chapter in our story. I am confident Qatar Rail will be seeing more record-setting achievements in the future.”
As the new lines become operational, QR will be tasked with day to day management of the system that connects 37 different stations in the Qatar’s capital – a city that is home to an estimated 90% of Qatar’s 1.9 million inhabitants. Accordingly, the need for a public transport system is a matter involving more than just the convenience it can offer citizens, as Mr Al-Subaie points out.
“Of course, if you share transport, then it means that less energy per distance travelled will be used and that will also be reflected in the CO2 emissions. The Doha Metro will save 2 million km of travel by car per day. The rail projects are expected to bring a 258,000 ton reduction in CO2 per year. We are anticipating that by 2030 we will avoid 107,000 tons of carbon emissions because some 19 per cent of journeys will be made by public transport.
“Another benefit is the safety aspect, especially on the roads. The number of visitors travelling in the Arabian Gulf region will be impacted, because the containers carried on a single freight train will make around 400 or 500 trucks superfluous. With so many heavy trucks keeping off the road, safety will improve and there will be less need for maintenance.”
The key aspect to QR’s can-do-it approach is integration, Mr Al-Subaie emphasises. “All our trains can work on different lines, and they have the same technology and control centre. Other cities have expanded over time, so they build one line, and then after 10 years they build another, only by then the technology has changed! This affects training, operations and maintenance of the entire network, so you need to have a large human capital base, people with knowledge of each specific area. In our case, we can gain on the economic scale, especially regarding operations and maintenance, where we have four lines with the same technology and concept.”
In September 2014, Mr Al-Subaie and his colleagues hosted a workshop on safety and security issues, coordinating with the UK trade office and British Embassy. The following month, a delegation from QR and Qatar’s civil defence directorate held a series of meetings with authorities of the Berlin metro, in which they were briefed on the latest in techniques and protocols for countering situations such as fires or panic-driven stampedes.
“We created a workshop here in Qatar over several days, and invited all the key specialised players from the UK: the transport police, the fire department, emergency services and also the NHS. We shared plenty of information, and they gave us a lot of details about what they are doing and how we can prepare for emergencies.”
As for the challenges he is facing, Mr Al-Subaie thinks for a bit before answering. “Probably the low level of perception of the benefits of public transportation,” he says at last, but adds that attitudes are changing, albeit slowly. In that respect, he expects that potential users will be reminded of the public transport option by the “architecturally branded” metro stations being built along the four Doha lines to designs by the Dutch group UNStudio. Variations on common elements or adaptive motifs help maintain the perception of a common identity uniting the 35 facilities and sends a message to the public that here is where the future begins.
“We simply cannot afford to move ahead with the current development model,” Mr Al-Subaie concludes. “We can’t build more and more roads, since we have limited country space and limited city boundaries. We cannot just build roads and parking lots everywhere—we have to change the way people move.”