UAE: How one train journey made an autistic teen's dreams come true

Suhail Al Sharqi recently became one of the first passengers to ride on an Etihad Rail train


Nasreen Abdulla

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Published: Tue 31 May 2022, 7:31 PM

For 15-year-old Suhail Al Sharqi, it was a dream come true when he and his friends became some of the first passengers to ride on an Etihad Rail train.

Being a locomotive lover, the UAE resident has taken trains in different parts of the world. However, he always dreamt of riding one in the Emirates. In 2020, before the pandemic hit, Suhail drew a picture of what at that time felt like an unattainable dream.

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How it happened

As a young boy, Suhail spent a lot of time playing with trains.

This year, during Autism Awareness Month in April, his mother Michele Ziolkowski reached out to Etihad Rail to ask if they could collaborate on a project. When Etihad Rail responded positively, it became the experience of a lifetime for Suhail and four of his classmates at the Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Special Needs, operated by the New England Center (MRC-NECC).

“I told him about it a week before the actual visit, but I don’t think he believed me,” chuckled Michele, an archaeologist and children’s book author.

“On the day, we travelled from Mohammed bin Zayed City to the railhead at Seih Shuaib,” she said. “As we exited the main road and drove towards Etihad Rail, Suhail noticed a few train carriages and that is when I think he actually believed that he was going to ride a train in his home country of UAE. When we got there, he was really excited. He even had a few jokes to share.”

The ride experience

Michele described how the trip unfolded. “The Etihad Rail staff greeted us and led us inside a large tent. It was set up with comfortable seating, large viewing screens and refreshments. Everyone welcomed Suhail and his school friends. Suhail made himself at home by helping himself to the sparkling water at the refreshments table. We were all given PPE gear, including high visibility vests and hard hats to wear before exiting the tent.

“Afterwards, we walked over to the nearby train tracks, where a railway carriage was waiting for us," she continued. "A set of mobile stairs was attached to the carriage, and this is how we entered. The train carriage was white, red and black. There was seating in the middle section and drivers’ controls at either end.”

“The entire trip took about 25 minutes,” said Michele. “But it could have been 30 or 40. We are not sure. Everyone was so enamoured by the experience that no one even realised how long we were on the train for. Suhail’s eyes were wide with excitement, and he had a smile throughout the trip. For him, it is a memory that he will treasure throughout his life.”

A desert view like no other

“The view from the train was incredible. There was a wide-open view of the desert terrain with a big blue sky on the horizon. I thought riding the train in the UAE desert was incredible. I have seen the tracks on the sand and the tunnels through the mountains. I am sure when the train ride from Abu Dhabi to Fujairah opens up to public, it is going to be a spectacular experience.”

Michele said that the children engaged with the experience and really enjoyed themselves. “The train driver tooted the horn a few times, which all the students enjoyed hearing,” she said.

“The train stopped on an overpass, and we could see the road below. The railway carriage, especially the control panel in the driver’s compartment, fascinated all the students. Suhail couldn’t stop smiling. He was looking at everything and trying to process all the journey details. The vibrations emanating from the track essentially worked as positive sensory input, and Suhail was entirely in his element.”

“The team from Etihad Rail was brilliant,” added Michele. “Usually, when people organise an outreach program for autistic children, there are some standard activities. Despite people’s best intentions, these activities don’t necessarily create a lasting memory for the kids. However, this particular trip was planned with so much care and attention to detail that every child was engaged. It was a lasting memory for their life, and they all went home with a big smile on their faces.”

What you need to know about Etihad Rail

The Etihad Rail project, which has been designed to connect the hubs of trade and industry in the UAE, will link the seven emirates.

Here are all the milestones the network has achieved so far:

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