Let the train take the strain

February 20, 2012

I was three years old when my parents moved to Stanmore, Middlesex, just north-west of London. One of the main reasons they chose to live there was that Stanmore is at the end of the Bakerloo Line (now called the Jubilee Line), part of the London Underground railway network.

My father walked to the station every day to take the trip to his architects’ practice in central London. During school holidays, as a young boy, I often accompanied him to his office, and we used to go for pizza at the first Pizza Express which opened in Wardour Street in 1965. I was eight then, and believe me, the pizza tasted sensational.

The London Underground has always been a part of my life. As a teenager, it allowed me the freedom to enjoy London, to go to concerts and sporting events, the cinema and theatre without the need to involve my long suffering parents in my every whim. As the time came when I moved to other parts of the UK to study and then find employment, I regularly used the national rail service to get around.

Here in Oman, the Ministry of Transport and Communications recently announced some of the details of the proposed rail network for the sultanate. The total length of track will be some 1,061km and it will link Buraimi and Al Ain in the north to Sohar, Muscat and Duqm.

There will be a number of sub branches in Buraimi, Sohar Industrial Port, by the airport in Muscat, and Ibra. The later second phase of the line will take it from Duqm into Dhofar, Salalah and then Yemen.

Speeds of 200km/hr for passenger trains and 80 to 120km/hr for goods trains are expected, with the construction due to be finished in 2017. “Why does it take so long to build?” asked my friend Abdulla. “This is nothing,” I replied.

“The new high speed link which is planned for the London to Birmingham route, in the UK, on a ‘fast-track’ legislative process, won’t get planning permission until 2015, with a construction completion of 2026. To get the Omani network operational by 2017 will be a real achievement.” 

Why is all of this important? A railway system enables large numbers of people or quantities of goods to be transported quickly and efficiently over both long and short distances.

The Oman system will link up with the Emirates and Saudi networks, creating business opportunities between the countries. Qatar is spending a fortune on an internal rail system that also links with Saudi and Bahrain.

I am a great supporter of the Omani rail initiative. But I would like to see the idea go further. Muscat is basically a long and narrow city on a coastal plain. It is perfect for a metro system that could link with the national network.

The areas to the west of the city, such as Seeb and Al Khoudh, where new development is taking place, could be linked with the airport, The Wave, the Grand Mall, Royal Opera House into Ruwi and the Central Business District.

And if a new metro can be built in Hong Kong, with the enormous practical challenges there, one can certainly be built here. The new stations will become nodes for development of shops and other commercial ventures, generating business and entertainment. This is happening in Dubai just now near some of the new metro stations.

Stanmore soon became part of the London Borough of Harrow, the railway proving the catalyst for the growth of the neighbourhood. We are lucky that in Oman the legislative process does not take as long as in other parts of the world.

I hope that city planners here act quickly to recognise the benefits and opportunities that could be created by a state of the art metro system, which would undoubtedly prove to be another big step in putting Muscat on the world map.


Nick lives and works in Muscat and the views expressed in this column are entirely his own

You can e-mail Nick at nick.smith@apexmedia.co.om