Rail ramps up in the Middle East

Atkins | 20 Aug 2014 | Comments

As the economies of the Middle East have grown, populations have grown and new buildings, facilities and services have been created to meet the demand. But how do you tie all of that development together? Large-scale rail networks offer a powerful solution.

The rapid rate of development in the Middle East in general – and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in particular – has had a number of consequences. It has established the region as a significant financial centre; workers of all types have flocked in to meet the demand for labour, skilled and otherwise; and cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha are now major centres of innovation, attracting business and skills from around the world.

But growth brings its own challenges. For the Middle East, the main one has been to develop and deepen the infrastructure across the region: as it moves from a collection of isolated city states towards a more integrated and interdependent economic bloc, transport in particular needs to improve to accommodate the needs of a growing population. And of course, these systems need to be built with one eye on sustainability and long term growth.

Driven by this continued urbanisation, large-scale rail systems are on the increase. The current main focus in the Middle East centres on metro systems. For instance, Riyadh Metro awarded $26 billion worth of projects last year to three consortia for six lines and there are similar levels of investment in Doha as well. Later in 2014 should see over $10 billion awarded for a systems and rolling stock package.

“These are big projects that are all coming to a head at the moment,” says Julian Hill, Atkins’ managing director for the Middle East Rail sector in Dubai. Hill says that, alongside the development of metro systems, work is ongoing to improve “feeder” systems, such as tram-style projects that feed into metro networks.

“Long term in the Middle East, high speed rail will be the next big thing,” says Hill. “That will link up these cities to form an alternative to the Arab aviation network.”In many ways, Hill says, the next ten years in the Middle East will mirror what’s been happening in China, where thousands of kilometres of high speed rail has been installed to link the main urban centres.

“That’s how people move around in China now and I can see that happening here, with people moving quickly between the major cities in the GCC. Once they get the metros up and working, high speed rail will be next.”

In order to stay ahead of the game for the next wave of rail development, Atkins is working with Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh to look at innovative approaches to high speed technology and how that can be used on a global level. As Hill points out, the Middle East is bound to be in the forefront of those efforts because the governments are willing to invest in such projects.

The backdrop for rail systems development in the region is one of urgent development, according to Dr Abdeljabbar Ben Salem, head of rail systems with Atkins.

“The programmes out here are extremely tight,”he says. “Typically, you’re looking at four years to build a metro project here – by comparison, a similar project in the UK could take 12 years. We have to hit the ground running to bring the systems up to speed very quickly and integrate the civils. That’s the part where we’re looking to fill.”

A question of skills

While the will and the finance may be in place, the big challenge facing firms involved in developing rail systems across the region is a shortage of qualified engineers able to solve the problems presented with building mass transit systems in a country with little heritage of rail expertise.

This can be tackled in a number of ways, says Atkins’ Hill. The company has begun to engage more with the region’s universities, focusing primarily on the civil side than on the systems. That, he says, is an easier task, given the proliferation of civil engineering expertise in the region.

Systems, however, requires a different calibre of people – it demands expertise and skills that are generally a little harder to find.

“Globally, wherever there’s significant investment in modes of transportation other than cars, there is a shortage of skills,” Hill says. “As a result, we’re increasing training, learning and development within our teams in the Middle East and that starts with the graduates and building up the team.”

Currently, several regional universities teach a range of civil engineering courses, supplying contractors with graduates with the necessary building skills, as well as architects and other related skill sets.

But as Hill points out, the type of engineering rail degree taught in the universities in the UK and Europe has yet to emerge in the Middle East.

“I’m sure that will come later on, once these systems are well established and you’re looking at operation and maintenance, asset management and other types of inputs that are required for these systems. There will be a greater spectrum of opportunity as opposed to just the front end.”

For its part, Atkins is focusing – through its investment in training and talent development – on training staff to understand systems integration, requirements management, configuration management of systems and safety.

But that’s a long term process. In the short term, in order to meet the needs of clients demanding immediate progress on big projects means scouring the world to recruit the right people – with the focus naturally falling on the areas where metro projects are coming to completion, thus freeing up the next batch of skilled engineers.

Luckily, in the battle for global systems talent, managers looking to staff projects in the Middle East have a significant advantage: the chance to develop new techniques and innovation.

“We’re attracting talented people from across the globe who want to work on major rail projects,”says Dr Ben Salem. “They get a chance to put their mark on these projects and to do things differently, and people are willing to consider more innovation in some areas.

“That’s different from the situation in Hong Kong, Singapore or the UK, where it’s more prescriptive. In the Middle East, there’s greater flexibility: you can move from one step to another quickly and come up with ideas that people will take forward–if you are able to sell those ideas.”

And while no-one wants to act the guinea pig, the countries of the Middle East are generally receptive to Atkins’efforts to innovate in a range of areas. Communications systems, for one, have proved fertile ground for innovation and trying out new ideas.

But of course, given the size and scale of the projects in which Atkins is engaged in the region, attempting to staff every project – at every skill level and across every site – is a challenge. To address this need, Atkins has made significant strides by casting its net wide to recruit the best rail talent from across the world, while also partnering with complementary consultants to meet the staffing demands for various ongoing projects.

“Our first priority is always to look internally to ensure we’re capitalising on our expertise in the UK, Europe, North America and Asia Pacific as efficiently and effectively as possible,” explains Dr Ben Salem.

“In addition, we are building our supply chain network with international and local companies to find the best ways of leveraging their valuable resources when we have a shortage and vice versa,” he continues.“We have a collaborative approach in order to offer the greatest value for our client and it’s definitely helpful.”

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