zawya, 09 June 2005

Firm Outlines Plans for Urban Rail Project; Near the Trigger Point... Time to Act


Kuwait City -
The Ministry of Public Works Kuwait is looking to appoint a consultant for a detailed feasibilities study on an urban rail system. If the study is approved, Kuwait may shortly join Dubai to start on urban rail projects that will release their cities from rush-hour chokehold. Dubai Municipality recently picked a team led by Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to begin construction on its Metro system. Arab Times recently spoke to Parsons Brinckerhoff International regional manager Glen J Thorn who at the request of the Minister of Public Works Bader Al-Humaidi reviewed the Urban transit issue. The world-leading consultants developed initial ideas and presented a short proposal on the system to Government.

"There is a limit on how much public transport the existing roads can accommodate, and at some point, a city will have to switch to a rail-based system. Kuwait is now reaching the trigger point," said Thorn. With a population of 2.4 million, and rapidly growing, it may seem like Kuwait is far from being crowded. But the nature of its location, with the city centre bounded by sea on almost three sides makes the congestion problem more difficult to solve and therefore more urgent. The metropolitan area is also constrained by land reserved for environmental conservation, water gathering areas and oil fields. As such, the area will need to increase in density to accommodate an additional 400,000 population. The city center itself, within the First Ring Road, is already quite tight.

A 2 km journey by car inside its boundaries could take more than 30 minutes, and traveling to Salmiya on any given weekend could easily stretch to over an hour. "Kuwait has the means to make the switch for transit now, and it should, because in fifteen years, it may already be too late to start solving congestion,""By 2030, it is estimated the population will reach 5.4 million, approximately 2.5 million of these will be in two new cities in Kieran and Subiyah. A high speed rail link would be advantageous in linking these new cities with Kuwait city." said Thorn. Based on the initial study made by Parsons-Brinckerhoff, the government had announced the proposal to link densely populated areas to Kuwait City by rail.

The first out of three proposed phases could carry a price tag between KD 350 million to KD 600 million, depending on the specifications decided by the government. Phase one, likely to be a mix of both underground and elevated system, may stretch up to 32 km and boast more than ten stations - from the airport going up to the city and coming down to Sabah Al-Salem. While it will be independent from the planned larger GCC rail connections, it is recommended that the project eventually link to the region-wide system. An underground system, or a Metro, will cost double that of an elevated rail transit. While a Metro would be more efficient distance-wise, ground water level in Kuwait is too close to the surface, so that construction will be much more difficult and expensive, said Thorn.

"The actual soil material is easy to tunnel through, but the high water table problem and porous nature of the soils makes it extremely complicated. On the flip side, working above ground would require longer distances in order to stick to existing government land, avoiding buildings and following road corridors," he said. Where a station is located is essentially the key to the system's success, as people will not walk for more than 400 meters to get to the train. Parsons Brinckerhoff identified residential areas with medium-to-low average income and low car ownership, such as Farwaniya, and connected it to high employment area of Kuwait City, industrial hub Shuwaikh and shopping centre Salmiya. Also under consideration are the benefits of connecting the line to educational centers.

Residents in these areas are more likely to take the trains initially, whereas people in more affluent areas might be more hesitant to make the switch. There is still reluctance from the average wage-earner and the high-income sector to use the public transport, even though the bus based public transport has improved dramatically over the last 5 years. There really needs to be more incentives offered to the general public to make the mode switch to public transport. In the Gulf region, residents tend to prefer cars, due to the cultural emphasis for cleanliness, privacy, and the segregation of sexes. These issues are easier to design out in railways, but are otherwise difficult to implement on buses.

But even a rail system does not guarantee patronage if its supporting system is inefficient. A station will have to be equipped with proper parking areas to coax the passengers out of their car into the train. Passengers also ultimately still have to rely on buses to get from station to destination or from home to station, particularly as the dessert weather makes walking a near impossibility. "Once you get a person out of the car you must supply car-to-destination service, a park-and-ride," said Thorn. One solution Parsons Brinkerhoff has for this is the futuristic Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). A "very light-rail system", akin to a monorail, PRT is basically a fleet of personal two or four-seater cabins that travel between major buildings in the city - for example the stock exchange, the Municipality, the government offices and the banks - can all be connected via an elevated track.

"You go up a flight of steps, catch the next cabin, push a button to tell it where you want to go, and it will take you to that location, air-conditioned substation to air-conditioned substation, without having to step outside." "No other city has this, because the technology has only matured in the last ten years. Kuwait is the ideal candidate for this type of system due to the compact nature of its city center," said Thorn. PB is also currently considering this system as a transit solution for a North American city.
The PRT aside, Parsons Brinckerhoff's study estimated an average 8,000 passengers will use the transit every hour per direction between stations.

During peak hours, the number could reach 15,000 patrons between several main stations near the city. These numbers, based on a previous Kuwait Transport Model study of Kuwait City prepared prior to the approval for the development of several high-rise buildings in the city, is most likely underestimated While fares generated from the estimated traffic volume would be enough to sustain transit operations, it will not recover the capital cost for building the system. No transit system in the world has been able to do that. "How packed the trains are going to be is not going to make the project financially viable; the configuration of the land resources and property development of the surrounding area will," said Thorn.

Enter the financing. The government has so far yet to indicate if it will be handling the project its self, or if it will be drawing in private investors. Assistant under-secretary for Roads and Sanitary Engineering Abdullateef al-Dakheel last month remarked at the MEED's 2nd Major New Project Opportunities in Kuwait the authorities have not decided if the project will be undertaken on BOT (build-operate-transfer) basis, or it will be conventionally financed. But with several investors with financial clout in the billions of dinars in Kuwait, a BOT system is definitely an option to be closely looked at.

The way to attract private parties to a BOT scheme is by offering them the opportunity to develop the whole stretch of land, where they will make a profit developing properties surrounding the area rather than from the rail operation itself. "A good model for this is Hong Kong Mass Transit Rail Corporation, widely considered as a property company with a railway underneath, instead of a railway company with a property development above it," Thorn said. He's convinced many Kuwaiti developers will be "clamoring" for the opportunity, as values for properties tied-up to the transit will most surely sky-rocket. So how does Parsons Brinckerhoff plan to fit into this? "We are sort of torn between the two at the moment.

In one way we hoped investors would want to take up the challenge to invest in a railway, and let us manage the project for them, from the initial study and design, through the procurement and finally into the operational aspects," said Thorn. "On the other hand it could be procured through traditional government tendering, and we would be bidding for design and construction with a consortium." "The capability of Kuwait consultants is now very good, and they would be able to design the majority of the support infrastructure and do it far cheaper than we could do it so there's no point competing against them.

Where we come in is that by utilizing our extensive rail design and operation experience and we can provide the highest level technical, financial and institutional advice. "But even the latter scenario, Parsons Brinckerhoff might opt to, work on behalf of the government to help program manage the whole project. "It's in this Program Management role that our unique capabilities and significant rail design experience can be relied on to provide the highest value to the Government."

By Maisara Ismail

©Arab Times 2005 [ Source ( Times - Kuwait) ] U P D A T E D