When I moved to Qatar in May 2007 – twelve years ago – there were around 800,000 people, a basic orange and black taxi service, old American yellow school busses were transporting construction workers, and a fledgling public bus service that had very limited routes (which I still have never taken) had recently been launched.
Fast forward to May 2019 and Qatar has over 2.75 million inhabitants and is teeming with transport options with a professional Karwa taxi fleet and bus network, Uber and Careem drivers you can order by app. But the most impressive achievement is the launch this month of the first leg of its underground metro system!
I first became fully aware of Qatar’s travel infrastructure ambitions back in 2010 when I was working on behalf of the Australian Trade Commission. Australian companies were coming to Qatar to better understand what Qatar’s rail plans were and to tender for some of these projects. I remember visiting the Qatar Rail display centre in the very much still at the beginning construction phase of the new city of Lusail where they had prototype rail carriages to sit in, video renderings of the planned stations and underground infrastructure as well as showing connections to elevated tramlines and regional passenger and freight rail. Deutsche Bahn had been brought in as consultants and the commitment to a first-class rail system was obvious.
We knew when Qatar won the bid in December of 2010 for the FIFA World Cup 2022 that (most of) these plans were really going to happen. Over the intervening years the public saw signs of rail development as the hoardings went up around construction sites, and as news came of tunnelling machines residents saw an elevated conveyer belt run around parts of West Bay to move the crushed rock / dirt out of the tunnels to then be carted away to other locations.
Throughout the city we began to see the iconic metro stations pop up highlighting where future rail services would be.
North and south of Doha we also began to see elevated lines rise up out of the desert. And on those elevated lines in the past year we began to see rail carriages on the move, obviously doing trial runs. Many of us were excited by the rumours of a free trial run on Qatar National Day in December 2018 swirling on social media which turned out not to be true.
So I, like many, was surprised when I saw an official tweet on Monday 6 May that one segment of the underground metro was opening to the public two days later on 8 May 2019!
I went to explore around midday on the first day. People heading in and out of Al Qassar station were smiling and taking lots of photos and selfies. There were also lots of staff on hand to help direct you. Down the first set of escalators, I went to one of the kiosks and bought a standard stored value travel card as I knew I would be riding the metro more than once and it would be much more convenient than buying a single ticket. It cost 10 QR for the card (sunk cost) and then you can top up with various amounts – remembering that a single ride is 2 QR but a daily maximum of 6 QR will be charged.
There is also a goldclub service where you can ride in special goldclub carriages. To travel in these you must have a Gold ticket or goldclub travel card. These travel cards cost 100 QR (sunk cost) with a single journey price of 10 QR and day pass of 30 QR. Both the gold and the standard travel cards are valid for five years.
It was easy to tap in and then continue down more escalators to the platform. Al Qassar is the most northern station open at the moment, but the signs promise more stations opening soon.
I chose to ride all the way to the southern end, Al Wakra, and took timings along the way. It took 32 minutes to travel from one end of the Red Line to the other. Most of the journey was underground only coming above ground for last few stops. Compared to other underground metro systems I have ridden around the world, the tunnels are very well lit, and as it is brand new – exceptionally clean!
Because it was relatively early on the first day, there weren’t so many passengers and we had pretty much free range of all the carriages including the goldclub carriages. While the standard seating is pretty typical of metro systems in other countries, I could see that the goldclub seating provided you with your own seat and arm rest so you weren’t sitting pushed up next to anyone. But the best bonus of being in the goldclub at least on this first day is that it was the end carriage facing the city when you came up out of the underground tunnels. I thought it provided a great view both of the track but of the Doha skyline.
I staked out a standing position here for the return journey from Al Wakra all the way to Al Qassar so that I could take a timelapse video. In the youtube video at the top you can I included the time-lapse so you can see the 32 minute journey in 32 seconds!
I felt I wasn’t done exploring yet so did get back on the metro again and went one stop into the West Bay area and got off at DECC, Doha Exhibition and Convention Center. There were multiple exit options and I tried the exit that brought me up next to the Gate Mall.
From where I live it seemed like this stop at DECC or could be convenient for downtown shopping, while West Bay, Corniche and Al Bidda would be great for a day / evening out, and especially on Qatar National Day when parking is challenging to say the least.
As I returned to Al Qassar station mid-afternoon, the station was now teaming with folks looking to go on their first ride. The ticket machines had long queues and the goldclub sales office was busy too.
I went back the next evening around 8pm with my family. It was a Thursday night in Doha, end of the working week in Qatar and it was a very different experience. I had planned ahead and stopped into my local Al Meera to get pre-loaded travel cards so we wouldn’t have to wait at the ticket machines. So, we tapped in and went on our way.
This time though the trains were packed and there was strict monitoring of those getting on to goldclub and family carriages. In both family and standard carriages all the seats were full with tons of people standing.
Again we road all the way to Al Wakra but the journey for me wasn’t as interesting at night as you couldn’t see as much, and also because I couldn’t camp out for the best view at the end of the goldclub carriage. Given how crowded it was that night, for those who can afford it, I could see the advantages of more space, less crowding in goldclub. But it was exciting to so many of the different nationalities in Qatar all out enjoying the new metro service. I don’t know how many nationalities there are in Qatar, but I know my children’s school has over 75!
There were lots of families traveling with young children and I did give up my seat to a man with a tired toddler in arms. The family carriage was overflowing and again there were selfies galore being taken.
On our return from Al Wakra we got off at Msheireb to check out what will be the main interchange. The station itself is impressive. The surrounding area, however, is still in full scale construction. We went wandering in search of drink, something to nibble on, and eventually ended up at an underpass near Souq Waqif, but only after either clambering over construction barriers or walking on the street facing oncoming traffic. We could see how it will be great for tourists when all the connecting services are running and you can easily get to Souq Waqif and the National Museum, and get out to the Qatar National Library and Education City and downtown West Bay.
We returned to Al Qassar around 10:30pm with multiple announcements being made to make sure folks returning to Al Wakra made the last train of the evening.
It will be interesting to see how much this limited Red Line service gets used over the coming weeks and months. The trains are currently running every 5 to 6 minutes so you aren’t waiting to long to catch a train. The service as I mentioned is currently limited to weekdays – which are Sunday to Thursday in Qatar and from 8am to 11pm – so not really geared up for morning commuters as many start their days earlier here. And I was disappointed that the service isn’t open yet on Fridays as that is the only day off for so many of the lower income workers here who work six days a week.
But I was impressed with the service and this is a great start. I believe this line opened a full year ahead of schedule and I look forward to its expansion. The metro pocket map I picked up says that when the full network is open by 2020, it will be open Sat – Thurs 5am to 1am and on Friday from 9am to 1am.
When this becomes a network available to all residents of Qatar I expect it will be widely used, especially as they are offering MetroLink services with bus routes as feeder networks to and from the stations.
Qatar laid out their Vision 2030 many years ago and this is one of the grand accomplishments on the way!
Congratulations to Qatar Rail and all the companies affiliated in making this happen. Bon Voyage!
Doha’s Red Line Metro opened to the public on 8 May running from the north, near the St Regis Hotel (Al Qassar) to the city of Al Wakrah, south of Doha.
It currently runs Sunday to Thursday from 8am to 11pm.
Single rides are 2 QR (US$0.55) while an unlimited day pass is 6 QR (US$ 1.65). For convenience, you can buy a stored value Travel card for QR 10 and then top up as required. The Travel card is valid for 5 years and you can register it online to see your journey history as well as report if lost. More information can be found at www.qr.com.qa.
It looks like the service has good access for those in wheelchairs or with young children in prams as there appear to be lifts / elevators at each location.