The railroad project: Has the train left the station?

The Hejaz Railway locomotive is seen at the Wadi Rum Station, in Wadi Rum, Jordan, in this undated photo. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The Hejaz Railway locomotive is seen at the Wadi Rum Station, in Wadi Rum, Jordan, in this undated photo. (Photo: Shutterstock)
The Ottomans needed eight years to build the Hijaz Railway, extending from Damascus to Medina in present time Saudi Arabia, with a branch to Haifa; a total 1,300km was built when World War I interrupted the project before the trains could reach Mecca, short of 400km.اضافة اعلان

In Jordan, as put by former transport minister Lina Shbeeb in an interview with Jordan News, “This project has been under review for more than 10 years; it has direction and an economic benefit but there are no finalized plans." The Turks needed 8 years to do the real thing and we have been thinking for 10 years.

This comes as no surprise because we have precedents of failure. The construction of the Bus Rapid Transit project started in 2010 after years of planning, then the government of Marouf Al-Bakhit, for some reason, raised questions about its feasibility and funding and brought it to a complete stop before it was resurrected a few years ago.

Another stop-start is the Amman-Zarqa light train, which was first proposed in mid-2000s, and has since suffered a series of setbacks, with consistent failures on the part of the government to select the right partner to carry out the vital project. An airport in Shuneh for agriculture exports, another in Mafraq, a new capital in Madouneh, the Aqaba-Amman Highway: Deadlines and failures, or complete halts and shelvings; a dismaying string of failures, and we keep naively asking why citizens do not trust the governments.

Once again, the project is back to the drawing board. Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khassawneh told investors in Mafraq last Thursday that the government is looking for investors in a mega railway scheme, without giving details about the scope of the plan. Is it a pan-Jordan passenger and freight network expanding to neighbors, or just freight? Are we waiting for a peace deal between the Palestinians and Israel and subsequent normal ties between Saudi Arabia and Tel Aviv? Are Syria, Iraq, and Tukey on board?  

The most recently proposed railway project includes a railway link between the port city of Aqaba and the Madouneh dry port in east Amman to transport goods, with plans to expand regionally to connect the Kingdom to its neighbors.

The situation is still wrapped in the customary vagueness of official media, but in all cases, it boils down to the issue of funding. The practice is that the government will be seeking a partner to execute the project under a build-operate-transfer (BOT) deal. Historically, some BOT projects fail for one of two reasons: the inability of the bidder to obtain financing, or a disagreement with the government over the cost on end-users.

Having that in mind, one wonders why other options are not considered, especially since the Public-Private Partnership Law is in place, offering the necessary legislation to facilitate mega projects in infrastructure. A public shareholding company, where the government, local banks, businessmen, and average people share the cost is a good option; after all, the project is financially promising.

What is needed is a professional feasibility study, which can be contributed by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation. The organization has already done that for Jordan, most notable when the Queen Alia Airport was left for an international investor to manage, recording a success story.

The country and the region need this project badly, so does the state, to restore Jordanians' faith in their administration. The train has not left the station yet.

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