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Dubai unveils $7.6-billion mass transit rail system

The system will include VIP as well as regular fare cars. Authorities are emphasizing the rail's luxury and hoping the venture into mass transit will ease traffic congestion.

September 10, 2009|Meris Lutz | Lutz is a special correspondent.

BEIRUT — Dubai, a Persian Gulf boomtown where Porsches share the road with truckloads of South Asian laborers, launched a mass-transit rail system Wednesday in an effort to ease crippling traffic that costs the city-state an estimated $1.4 billion a year.

Despite recent economic reverses, the railway in this United Arab Emirates city of superlatives -- home to palm-shaped artificial islands and the world's tallest building -- will sport a showy attitude. The system will include VIP cars with fares equivalent to $3.55, more than seven times the lowest-cost ticket.

The $7.6-billion automatic rail system, under construction since 2005 and 80% over budget, made its inaugural journey Wednesday night with several hundred contest winners as passengers, news reports said. Service opens to the public today.

Initially only 10 of the 29 stations will operate on the Red Line. It runs from the airport through downtown, across the Dubai Creek and along lengthy Sheik Zayed Road adjacent to luxurious new high-rise towers, some of them unfinished because of the global economic downturn.

The Green Line is expected to open over the next year, expanding the system to about 47 stations along 46 miles of railway.

Only 5% of Dubai residents use public transportation, but authorities are hoping to raise that number to 20% by keeping regular fares between 50 cents and $1.50, the same as the bus system.

Rapid transit is an element of public space and life in cities such as New York, London and Paris. Many wonder whether Dubai's rail system can make a difference in a city defined by individualism and gated communities.

In seeking to establish itself as an international commercial center, Dubai championed exclusivity over accessibility, investing little in public space. Authorities are highlighting the grandeur of the new rail system over its convenience. But the system, which will run both above and below ground, might end up changing public attitudes anyway.

"There's a lot of emphasis on this being a luxurious public transportation system, which will distinguish Dubai from New York or London," said Tabitha Decker, a Yale University researcher and a visiting scholar at the Dubai School of Government, who is writing her dissertation on the development of the metro.

"It's about aesthetics and commercialism, but when you combine it with the fact that this is also a public good, this is a bit of a surprising moment in Dubai's history. It's not fitting into our idea of what Dubai is," she said. "I think it's something Dubai should be proud of."

But some Dubai residents were skeptical about the metro's practicality, pointing out that the initial route runs only along Sheik Zayed Road.

Ghassan Abdul-Sater, a 26-year-old Dubai resident and Lebanon native who is in advertising, said he would continue to drive to work rather than brave the hassle of public transportation.

"Parking somewhere to use the metro and then get off and walk to work?" he said. "I think I'll have minimal uses" for the metro.

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