Lessons learned from the Dubai metro project

Chairman's Projects Advisor, Roads and Transport Authority, Dubai, United Arab Emirates


The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is the government organization responsible for providing and managing all surface transportation in the emirate of Dubai. The RTA completed the construction of one of its major projects, the “Dubai Metro,” on 9 September 2011. The Dubai Metro, with its 75 km and 47 stations, is the largest driverless metro system in the world. The Dubai Metro employed five main contractors, over 160 sub-contractors, and more than 30,000 workers. The project covered many varying disciplines, including civil, architectural, electrical, mechanical, electronics, communications, and software, among others. The first line of the Dubai Metro was completed in a record period of 49 months. This paper explores the challenges that the RTA faced in the different phases of this mega project, namely: concept and studies; design; tendering; construction; and finally, operations and maintenance. The lessons learned from facing these challenges are summarized and classified according to five different categories: managerial, technical, administrative, contractual, and financial. These lessons learned are documented here to assist the RTA and other organizations in managing large-scale projects in the future.

The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA)

The Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is a government organization responsible for the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the land and marine transportation networks in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The organization was established in November 2005 as a specialized entity to concentrate on the challenge of planning and building a world-class transportation system for the city. The RTA was established by amalgamating several departments and sections from three existing government organizations: Dubai Municipality, Dubai Police, and Dubai Transport. The government of Dubai is very progressive, and the population of the city is forecasted to increase from 1.8 million in 2011 to around 3.3 million by 2020. Over the past few decades, Dubai has succeeded in developing its status as a major city, enhancing the wellbeing of its people and creating an environment that attracts business and individuals. The RTA's structure is based on the agency model. As shown in Exhibit 1, it has three sectors, six agencies, and one commercial agency.

Organization chart of the Roads and Transport Authority

Exhibit 1 – Organization chart of the Roads and Transport Authority

Projects in the RTA

At any one point in time, there are approximately 250 projects running in parallel within the RTA. The total annual projects budget of the organization exceeds US$4 billion with approximately 90% allocated to infrastructure projects of different types, such as traffic and roads, rail, public transport (buses), and marine transport. Exhibit 2 shows the breakdown of the projects budget to the different activities. The majority of the budget (85%) goes to roads and metro projects where huge infrastructure investments exist.

Breakdown of the RTA's projects budget

Exhibit 2 – Breakdown of the RTA's projects budget

The Dubai Metro Project

In terms of size, the Dubai Metro, with its 75 km and 47 stations, is the largest driverless metro system in the world. In terms of budget, the final project budget of approximately US$7.5 billion exceeds the annual budget of some small nations. In terms of labor force, the Dubai Metro project employed five main contractors, over 160 sub-contractors, and more than 30,000 workers. Due to its nature, the Dubai Metro project covered many varying disciplines, including civil, architectural, electrical, mechanical, electronics, communications, and software, among others. Although some of the systems used in the Dubai Metro were tried and tested in other projects, their application in one single project was unique to the Dubai Metro. The Dubai Metro's impact spreads over several fields including the economic, social, and political arenas. Moreover, the project's impact is not limited to its immediate surroundings (in this case, the emirate of Dubai), but it also extends to cover the entire country of the United Arab Emirates. On the opening of the Dubai Metro, H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum emphasized the importance of the Metro project through his quote: “The [Metro] project is Dubai's socio-economic future.” It can even be argued that the Dubai Metro has a regional impact since it inspired other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to start building their own metro systems.

The Metro project consists of two lines, the red line and the green line. Exhibit 3 provides some vital statistics about the two lines including length and number of stations, depots, and car parks. The first phase of the project started revenue service on schedule on 9 September 2009 and the second phase started on 9 September 2011. The system has been operating since then with over 99% availability and punctuality. From its start of operations through mid-July 2014, the Dubai Metro has transported more than 450 million passengers with a daily average of 500,000 passengers.

Features of the Dubai Metro project

Exhibit 3: Features of the Dubai Metro project

The red line, which started revenue service on 9 September 2009, was completed in just 49 months from the start of construction. Exhibit 4 shows the main milestones of the red line project.

Milestones of the red line of the Dubai Metro

Exhibit 4: Milestones of the red line of the Dubai Metro

There were several stakeholders involved in the Dubai Metro project. The project was overseen by the Chairman of the Board of the Roads and Transport Authority, while the project sponsor was the CEO of the RTA Rail Agency. The Rail Agency itself acted as the owner representative, supported by a strong Program Management Office. As expected in construction projects, the owner appointed an engineer and a contactor. Moreover, the owner also appointed an independent safety assessor as soon as construction started. The operation and maintenance company was appointed two years before the start of revenue service in the first phase. Exhibit 5 shows the high-level organization structure of the Dubai Metro project.

Organization structure of the Dubai Metro project

Exhibit 5 – Organization structure of the Dubai Metro project

Challenges Faced by the Dubai Metro Project

The Dubai Metro faced many challenges during the project life cycle from conceptualization to completion. The RTA documented these challenges as lessons learned to be used in future projects and also to be beneficial for the engineering community as a whole. This section provides a summary of the main challenges faced by the Metro project, classified according to the project phase where they occurred.

Concept and Studies Challenges

  • A large number of stakeholders were involved in this project. Many of the stakeholders were from outside the RTA, resulting in more difficult communication.
  • Constantly changing requirements and circumstances made traceability a challenge.
  • Different nationalities of contractor(s) and consultant(s) resulted in complicated communication.

Design Challenges

  • Many changes and variations related to aesthetics (e.g., flooring)
  • Complex station shapes
  • A large number of complicated systems with extensive integration requirements

Tendering Challenges

  • The contract had a number of clauses that were found to be impractical, ambiguous, and, at times, negative, resulting in difficulties administering the contract.
  • Some equipment was ordered at the start of the contract although it would not be required until much later in the operating life of the Metro system.

Construction Challenges

  • Short period of construction (49 months for the red line)
  • Working in congested areas
  • Tunneling under the old city

Operation and Maintenance Challenges

  • Number of automatic fare collection machines not clearly specified
  • Contractor's accountability for repairs in the defects liability period not clearly defined by KPIs

Lessons Learned From the Dubai Metro Project

To overcome the challenges of the Dubai Metro project, the RTA had to employ innovative project management techniques as well as utilize all the resources available for it. From these management techniques and their employment, the RTA could draw several lessons learned. The following section summarizes the lessons learned from this mega project classified into five categories: managerial, technical, administrative, contractual, and financial.

Managerial Lessons Learned

These managerial lessons learned apply to the top management of the owner organization and can be useful to any governmental agency and/or private developer that plans to undertake a mega project.


  • For mega projects to succeed, the project leader must possess, display, and apply several characteristics of leadership excellence as listed below:

    o A clear, strong, and unwavering vision

    o Absolute trust in the team; the team must also have absolute trust in the leader and his vision

    o Ability to influence all the major players on the project

    o Technical knowledge

    o Momentum, control, and follow-through

    o A positive, no-nonsense, can-do attitude


  • Client must develop its own project management plan covering all aspects of the project, including:

    o Integration of the work of the different contractors/suppliers as well as the activities of all other players, such as the engineer, the project management company (PMC), the independent safety assessor, and the operator

    o Integration of the work of the engineer, the PMC, and the client, with clear roles for each

    o Studying the effects of any changes on all aspects of the project (time, cost, quality, safety, etc.)


  • The Metro project should be treated as a portfolio of programs, projects, and related technical work. Exhibit 6 shows one example of how the Metro portfolio can be organized. In this example, the geographical locations are each treated as a project. The program manager would be responsible for integrating the different projects, while the portfolio director is responsible for the overall Metro portfolio.
  • Client must develop its own complete project organization chart with experienced staff and clear roles, responsibilities, and authorities.
  • Client's project staff must focus 100% of their time and effort on the delivery of the project.
  • Client must ensure you have a robust change management procedure (a variation orders committee is recommended).
  • Use mind maps as a powerful tool to identify and manage all aspects.
Metro portfolio structure

Exhibit 6 – Metro portfolio structure

Monitoring and Control

  • Client needs to set challenging deadlines.
  • Client must develop and use strong reporting systems to monitor progress.
  • Top management should always use multiple sources of information to ensure that they have full picture.
  • Client must make the right decisions at the right time. Delaying decisions will only result in problems getting larger and the project going into stagnation.
  • Client must ensure a balanced work distribution between all parties.

Risk Management

  • Client must have a robust risk management process of its own without relying on those of the engineer or the contractor.
  • Client must develop plans to deal with all anticipated risks.
  • Client should always have alternative plans and work-arounds.

Technical Lessons Learned

The technical lessons learned apply to the technical aspects of project management. Although these lessons learned are drawn from a rail project, they actually apply across most disciplines within the construction industry.


  • Client must develop a high-level work breakdown structure including all deliverables to ensure everything is considered.
  • Client must develop a high-level time schedule with milestones integrating all activities, such as detailed design, construction, testing and commissioning, certification, operator's takeover, etc.
  • Client must develop its own procedures for project quality management.
  • Client needs to be prepared to propose or consider value engineering ideas.


  • Client management should use site visits to ensure accuracy of reports (hands-on management by client—do not wait in the office and do not wait till the end).
  • Client must have direct control over time management.
  • Client must be able to double-check some of the construction works on site.
  • Client needs to use the opinions of experts (sometimes external) to ensure they are getting the right information.
  • Client management must not pretend to know it all. “If you do not know something, ask about it and seek advice.”


  • For working in congested areas, the following techniques can be adapted:

    o Using the top-down construction technique to build underground stations in order to contain noise and dust generation as shown in Exhibit 7

    o Using launching gantries to eliminate the need for ground-level supports and minimize disturbance to traffic

    o Using special modular transporters to construct footbridges across a major highway with minimal road closures

  • For tunneling under existing old buildings:

    o Using tunnel boring machines customized to work in the prevailing soil conditions

    o Continuously monitoring the settlements of older buildings

    o Completing the tunneling in the shortest possible time (300 meters per month)

Top-down construction technique

Exhibit 7 – Top-down construction technique

Administrative Lessons Learned

These lessons learned relate to the administrative details of managing the project including stakeholders and human resources.


  • Client must identify all project stakeholders (internal and external) and their requirements and influence on the project.
  • Client needs to develop a clear communication plan showing the reports, the meetings, and all other items of communication.
  • Client must develop and use a strong and robust document management system.
  • Client must always have accurate and on-time reporting.


  • Client must conduct regular follow-ups and audits to ensure that the engineer and the PMC are doing their work.
  • Client may use benchmarking wherever possible to compare your project to others.
  • Client needs to be prepared to intervene and replace contractor and sub-contractor staff when necessary.
  • Client must also intervene to reward staff on the spot for motivation.

Contractual Lessons Learned

  • Client needs to spend sufficient time in formulating the contract to avoid ambiguity and confusion.
  • Client can minimize the contractor's chances for claims by providing all documentation, approvals, etc. on time.
  • Client must have a very strong contract management team.
  • Client must keep and maintain accurate and complete documentation of all meetings, correspondence, emails, etc.
  • Client must ensure that any and all changes are processed through the change management procedure.

Financial Lessons Learned

  • Client must ensure that the cost of any variation is evaluated before approval of change.
  • Client should carefully document the hours and utilization of any additional resources to be able to counter contractor's claims.
  • Client must also ensure that contractors and consultants are paid on time to gain their commitment for work progress.

Summary and Conclusions

This paper explored the challenges faced by the Dubai Metro project and the lessons learned from facing those challenges. The lessons learned were classified in five categories: managerial, technical, administrative, contractual, and financial. The classification of the lessons learned was undertaken in order to target the different disciplines and the different levels within the client organization undertaking the mega project. Several conclusions could be drawn from the lessons learned as summarized below:

  • Strong leadership is probably the most important success factor in the completion of mega projects.
  • Mega projects need motivated leaders who embrace excellence and empower their teams.
  • Metro Projects should be managed as a portfolio of programs, projects, and related technical work.
  • The client should take firm leadership of the project in the form of:

    o Developing the top-level project management plan integrating the activities of all stakeholders and including the work breakdown structure (WBS) and the organizational breakdown structure (OBS);

    o Auditing the work of the engineer and the project management company to ensure they are fulfilling their assigned roles within the project;

    o Developing clear stakeholder management and communication management plans;

    o Monitoring the work on a regular basis;

    o Comprehensive and rigorous risk management with regular updates and follow-ups; and

    o Developing own procedures for quality management

  • The tasks mentioned above should be undertaken by the client's own staff and should not be left to consultants to ensure ownership and accuracy.
  • Innovative techniques should be used to ensure that the available resources are utilized to their full potential.

© 2014, Khaled A. Hamdy
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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