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New Dubai driverless metro makes room for VIPs

DUBAI is opening the Arabian Peninsula's first metro system Wednesday, hoping to capture the world's spotlight on the catchy date of 9/9/09 whether the sleek system is fully ready to go or not.

The rapid transit line has been slotted together at breakneck speed, much like the often traffic-clogged city it aims to serve. In true Dubai style, it even promises a VIP section for higher-paying customers who don't want to mix with the rest of the public using the public transport line.

Officials are eager to portray the US$7.6 billion project as a rare piece of good news amid the negative press that's swamped the sheikdom, which has seen its once-buzzing economy hit hard by the global downturn.

Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, characterized the project as a vital piece of infrastructure that could revitalize the city, much like the fast-growing state airline and ports that helped put Dubai on the map.

"It's the start of something," he told reporters on the eve of the project's launch. "It is like when the first plane flew for Emirates (airline) and the first container ship arrived into port."

For many of Dubai's foreign guest workers, the rail project could mean far quicker commutes in a sprawling city-state where shared taxis, packed vans and creaky wooden boats are among the most visible forms of public transportation.

Getting wealthier residents to give up their beloved Hummers and Toyota Land Cruisers will be a bigger challenge in a country where generous government fuel subsidies do little to discourage driving.

Dubai "has grown up as a car-dependent kind of place," said Nigel Harris, managing director of The Railway Consultancy in London. "This is about a culture change. ... It's getting people out of their cars that's always difficult."

Wednesday's opening has the feel of being rushed. Invitations to the unveiling ceremony were being hastily sent out as recently as Monday. Only ten of the inaugural red line's 29 stations are ready for opening day - a fact the head of the transit authority announced last week.

He also revealed that the project, launched 3-1/2 years ago, is about 80 percent over budget.

The delay means stations at the airport and one of the city's biggest shopping malls will open, but those outside several densely populated areas where commuters live won't.

The remaining stations on the 32-mile (52-kilometer) red line are due to open by February. A second line is expected to enter service in June - three months behind schedule.

"We're all waiting for it, to reduce the traffic," said Mohammed Kunhi, a 26-year-old courier from India who estimates he spends two to three hours stuck in traffic daily.

Officials say the system is one of the world's most advanced.

Driverless, remote-controlled trains will whisk passengers along an elevated line that snakes over and under numerous bridges crisscrossing the city's main multilane highway before heading underground in the city center.

A screen between passengers and the track itself allows stations to be air conditioned - not an insignificant consideration given that temperatures routinely top 110 degrees Fahrenheit and the summer humidity is oppressive. Wireless Internet is being promised throughout.

Each five-car train has a separate compartment reserved for women and children, much like the Arab World's only other metro in Cairo. Women will be able to sit in other cars as well.

And, in a nod to Dubai's premium tastes, every train will reserve the front for big spenders willing to pay double for leather seats in the system's "gold class" section.

The elite seats, like the Internet and the chilled stations, are an effort to coax at least some of Dubai's SUV-loving residents off the roads. Analysts say that could be tough given the heat and a lack of sidewalks in many parts of the city.

Still, many commuters have high hopes.

Sreejesh Aerampalli, a 28-year-old mailroom clerk from the Indian state of Kerala, said he expects the transit line will significantly shorten his often 1-1/2 hour trip between home downtown and work at a faraway office park.

"The metro is better," he said while shading himself from the midday sun. With "no traffic, (it will be) very easy to come to work," he said.

The system is operated by Serco Group, a British contractor whose businesses include running rail networks and prisons in England and Australia, providing computer support to the U.S. military, and managing Britain's nuclear arsenal.

Wednesday's launch is for invited guests only. The metro opens to the public Thursday.

Rides start at 1.8 dirhams, or about 50 U.S. cents. A gold-class trip on the length of the system costs up to 13 dirhams, or US$3.55, one-way.


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