Speedy rail links connecting the Baltics, the first nuclear-power reactor in the UAE and a sea port in Pakistan that is open for business: all are headline projects but will they work?
One of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects is entering a crucial year. Rail Baltica is a major new rail network running 728km from Tallinn, Estonia, south through Latvia and Lithuania and linking up with existing railways in Poland. The aim of the line, the first phase of which is scheduled to open in 2024, is to connect these three countries not just to one another but to the rest of Europe; there is now even talk of a tunnel under the Baltic Sea to connect Tallinn with Helsinki. “This is the project of the century for the Baltic countries,” says Baiba Rubesa, ceo of RB Rail, the joint venture set up by the three nations in order to oversee the vast undertaking.
There are projections for five million passengers and 13 million tonnes of cargo on the line by 2030. “Rail Baltica will act as a catalyst for economic growth within the Baltics and beyond,” says Kristjan Kaunissaare, Rail Baltica project co-ordinator at Estonia’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.
But the project is fraught with complexity. On a technical level there is a difference in track gauges for the existing railways and some parts of the line may have to be built as “dual” gauge in order to facilitate transition to routes into Russia. Diplomacy is also tricky. “We are at the centre of a spider’s web of many different issues that all need to be agreed upon,” says Rubesa.
Although the first tracks will not be laid until 2020, there is much to be done before then. On the agenda for 2017 are assessment and feasibility studies and a 10-year business plan. Then there is the question of that tunnel between Tallinn and Helsinki under the Gulf of Finland. Costing an estimated €13bn, this would be the longest undersea rail tunnel in the world. The idea of a tunnel has been around for decades but, with Rail Baltica approaching, politicians are now taking it seriously. As Kaunissaare puts it, “We’re on the right track.”
The Arab world enters nuclear-power territory in 2017 with the completion of the first of four nuclear-power reactors in the uae. The planned 5.6 gigawatt Barakah complex is the result of a sober 2008 assessment of the country’s ballooning energy needs, when it was found that demand was rising by 9 per cent a year – three times the global average.
The response was swift. In 2009 a contract was awarded to a consortium led by Korean Electric Power Corporation. Work on the first unit began in 2012 and, aside from an accident that killed two workers in 2016, construction has gone smoothly. The reactors are due to be rolled out on schedule over the next four years and by 2020 Barakah is expected to meet up to a quarter of national electricity needs and save about 12 million tonnes in carbon emissions annually.
Crucially it also allows the Emirati government to diversify its energy portfolio and reduce its reliance on oil; as a result the programme is being closely watched by others in the region. “Nuclear energy has its appeal for Middle Eastern oil producers,” says Carole Nakhle, director of independent energy consultancy firm Crystol Energy. She describes it as “a green source of power generation that will allow the region to reduce its carbon footprint and help to meet rapidly rising demand for electricity”. At the same time, she adds, “It will also safeguard oil exports instead of burning oil domestically and diversify the region’s primary fuel mix.”
One of the countries with more than an eye on Barakah is Saudi Arabia, which earlier in 2016 unveiled plans to triple non-oil revenue by 2020. The kingdom is currently deciding on a site for 16 nuclear reactors set to produce more than 17 gigawatts by 2040. Jordan and Egypt have also signed a deal with Russian state nuclear company Rosatom to build plants in the coming years to address their power-shortage problems. Others will be watching closely for other reasons, however. In an unstable region and with a newly resurgent and nuclear Iran, there are those who will see this development in the Middle East as a security issue.
Life in North American cities in the 20th century was held up by three pillars: the suburban house, the car and the highway. Inner cities were seen as hubs of work and commerce but rarely as places to call home. But now that’s changing. Across the continent people are moving back into city centres in a process that journalist Alan Ehrenhalt has described as “the great inversion”. In Toronto the downtown population is currently growing four times faster than the population of the rest of the city. This shift is forcing officials to consider smarter uses of space in some of the densest districts.
Enter architect Ken Greenberg, who is spearheading a project that will rejuvenate the neglected underbelly of the Gardiner Expressway, a raised motorway that cuts into the centre of Toronto from the western suburbs. “The idea is to build a great civic living room on roughly 10 acres [4 hectares] of land that is located in the middle of this area,” he says. And while the spaces underneath the highway will be transformed, the key artery will continue to be used by cars and lorries. Christened The Bentway after the beams that hold up the elevated thoroughfare, the development will open in phases starting in the summer of 2017.
Landscape firm Public Work will help to realise the final vision: three main sections linked by a single kilometre-long ice-skating trail. The completed Bentway will be a vibrant park featuring community centres, cafés and performance spaces, all located under and around the expressway. A viewing bridge hanging from the Gardiner will offer vistas of historic Fort York. “Currently the only people with that view are those living in condos,” says Greenberg.
If Manhattan’s High Line is an original take on how to give expired infrastructure a new lease of life, the Bentway represents a fresh approach to infrastructure that is still serving its purpose. “Instead of thinking of it as solving an engineering problem, we need to use it to serve multiple functions,” says Greenberg. “In this case, how to make what’s under the Gardiner just as important as what’s happening on it.”
Creaking infrastructure has long been the bane of Kenya’s – and east Africa’s – economy. A single-track railway begun by British colonialists at the end of the 19th century remains the primary artery for moving goods inland from the congested port at Mombasa.
That railroad was nicknamed the Lunatic Line because of the dangers of its construction, with man-eating lions and a hostile environment compounding the difficulty of laying a railway into Africa’s then-undeveloped interior. It took three years and thousands of lives to build the 525km line that then became the lifeblood of the economy and the spark for Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, which grew from a few shacks by a railway siding into a bustling city of 3.5 million.
Kenya’s government is hoping that a new line – a $3.8bn Chinese-built standard-gauge railway (sgr) – will repeat the trick by increasing the volume of regional trade. The 472km Mombasa-Nairobi section is due to open in mid-2017 and the 620km extension from Nairobi to Uganda – and on to Kampala – is under construction.
The government projects that the railway will increase economic growth by 1.5 per cent. Everything imported into Kenya, and much of east Africa, arrives in the port of Mombasa and is then transported to Nairobi and on to its landlocked neighbours Uganda, South Sudan and Rwanda. The existing train currently takes 18 hours to reach Nairobi and the onward line to Uganda is in disrepair, while smoke-spewing trucks clog the highway.
The new railway line is intended to be transformative but has already run into trouble. As with so many Kenyan schemes involving public money, the sgr project is beset with allegations of inflated tenders, backhanders and other corruption. Commentators have questioned the high per-kilometre construction cost and the debt taken on to finance the line.
It has also run into controversy because the chosen route cuts through the 12,000-hectare Nairobi National Park, a wildlife reserve in the capital that is home to lions, rhinos and giraffes. Conservationists’ petition for the line to skirt the park has been unsuccessful.
Although construction of the Gwadar sea port in Pakistan concluded several years ago, it has sat virtually deserted on its finger of land overlooking the Arabian Sea. The problem is that the improvements to the highway that connects Gwadar with the western Chinese city of Kashgar, which should transform Gwadar into a thronging hub of commerce, have been complicated by political instability in the states through which the road runs. Officials now hope that 2017 will be the year the highway is finished and Gwadar realises its full potential.
The port is one of the flagship projects in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a set of infrastructure schemes totalling €43bn of Chinese investment. The hope is that the port – built by the Chinese at a cost of €231m – will rival Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, processing up to 400 million tonnes of cargo each year. For China the project is of paramount importance. The port provides direct access to the Arabian Sea, allowing Chinese energy imports to circumvent the Malacca Strait off the coast of Malaysia, where more than 80 per cent of its energy imports currently bottleneck. Gwadar and the highway to Kashgar also represent an important connection between the maritime and overland branches of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which was designed to generate stronger links between China’s economy and those of Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe.
Though the first convoy of cargo from Kashgar reached Gwadar in November 2016, the highway still faces substantial challenges before it reaches full capacity. The route takes it through the insurgency-affected states of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan and Xinjiang in China. Sameer Patil, an analyst with the Indian think-tank Gateway House, says that by bringing infrastructure and economic activity to the region “the Chinese believe they can buy peace”. In the meantime Pakistan isn’t taking any chances and has deployed troops to protect Chinese workers in the region. This is one project to watch – if the highway is completed by the end of 2017, the Gwadar port could finally become a key node for global trade.