More than 30 years after a body was set up to assess the viability of a trans-Arab railway project the idea still remains on paper. It was way back in 1979 that the idea of railways to link all the 22 Arab countries across Asia and Africa was mooted but so far only a map with two possible routes has been drawn up.
The secretary-general of what is known as Arab Railways Association, Murhaf Al Sabouni, told a local Arabic daily in an interview that the possible routes were suggested on a map in 1992, a year after Arab transport ministers ordered to launch a preliminary assessment study.
The routes do not include Palestine due to expected hurdles Israel can pose to the project which is estimated to cost a staggering $25bn. One possible route can initiate from top of Syrian snaking down via Jordan to Saudi Arabia, while the other one can link Egypt to Mauritania across the breadth of the vast northern stretches of Africa. Currently, there are only 11 of the 22 Arab countries which have internal railway systems but none of them has linkages beyond their territories. The length of the railways in these countries is 25,000km. To link all the 22 Arab countries through a rail network another 25,000km of network will be needed and since each km is estimated to cost around $1m to $1.5, the entire project cost is estimated at $25bn.
Private investors can play a vital role in the project but the Arab railways should not be privatised, Al Sabouni said, arguing that efforts of the European Union (EU) to privatise railways in the continent have failed. The official said that aside from encouraging inter-Arab trade and tourism, an Arab rail link can connect Asia to Europe and the African countries in the vast continent. The proposed Arab rail project can be modeled along the GCC lines, said the secretary-general.