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From the Oman Observer: With the concept of a railway system in the Batinah region having since grown into a wider North Oman network, an extension into Muscat, experts say, is the next logical step in the evolution of the Sultanate's ambitious rail initiative. Indeed, a rail link in the capital city will be in line with the current GCC-wide [Gulf Co-operation Council] trend towards rail-based passenger and freight transportation services. Multi-billion-dollar schemes for metros, high-speed networks and even tram systems are in various stages of design and development across all of the Gulf region. First off the block will be the UAE emirate of Dubai with the scheduled launch of its Red Line metro in September this year. Oman's authorities have already made impressive headway in conceptualising the broad outlines of a rail system in the Sultanate. That effort is being spearheaded by the supreme committee for town planning (SCTP), a key organ of the ministry of national economy. A landmark study into the feasibility of a rail system in the Batinah region has rapidly burgeoned in scope since it was commissioned early this year. New alignments and branch lines have been added to the scope of the study, underscoring the promising nature of Oman's nascent efforts to embrace rail-based travel. What initially began as the study of a 260km alignment from Barka to Khatmat Malaha near Oman's border with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has grown even more ambitious. The potential for a 120km branch line, running from Falaj al Qabail in Sohar to Al Ain via Al Buraimi in the Dhahirah region, has been added to the project. More recently, authorities have been exploring the potential for an extension of the proposed Batinah rail system into the capital region. Choosing a suitable alignment through Muscat will not be an easy task, experts say, given the scale of urbanisation in the capital city and the ruggedness of the surrounding terrain. In the circumstances, Al Ansab is seen as an ideal junction for a rail line that extends south of the Barka - Khatmat Malaha network. With Al Ansab as the junction, one line is envisaged to run onward into the heart of the city, while another will veer westwards towards Duqm and Salalah beyond. The alignment of an extension from Barka to Al Ansab, which will add a further 40-odd kilometres to the Batinah rail network, will necessarily have to run beyond the under-construction Muscat Expressway, experts point out. That would take it largely through hilly terrain. Importantly, the shape of a rail system within the city, experts say, will depend largely on traffic impact studies currently being undertaken by the supreme committee's specialist consultants. French-based Systra Consulting, together with their local partner National Engineering Office (NEO), are studying the broad scope and elements of a rail system that will initially run the length of the Batinah region, and eventually extend to other economic hubs and population centres around the Sultanate. While a passenger line will doubtless be part of the proposed network in the city, a freight component will depend on what the government has in store for Port Sultan Qaboos. With traffic congestion in the city stymying efforts to expand the port, the government has commissioned international consultant W S Atkins to study the potential for redeveloping the gateway into a tourism facility. Any decision to convert the port into a tourism facility would entail a downscaling of freight volumes shipped in and out of Muscat, consequently diminishing prospects for a freight rail line through the city. Ongoing alignment and traffic impact studies are also key to determining whether Muscat will get a metro or a ground-level rail system, or a combination of both, experts point out. Either way, the rail network will be designed for high-speed transportation. Eventually, the network will be linked to an inter-GCC rail project that will criss-cross all six member states. The roughly 2,000km network will eventually connect Salalah on Oman's southern coast with Kuwait's border with Iraq. The $14 billion project is likely to be operational during the 2016-18 timeframe.

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