When railways are mentioned in relation to Saudi Arabia, the Hejaz railway is what most often comes to mind. The line was introduced in the 19th century linking Medina to Damascus, and although sections still run in Jordan and Syria, the only remnants of it in Saudi Arabia are tourist attractions featuring stations, rolling stock and non-operational tracks.
However, railways in the Kingdom will soon conjure up a different vision entirely as the government looks to build a more extensive 21st-century version of this Ottoman feat. Indeed, while the Hejaz line reached a length of 1300 km, the current rail-building programme in the Kingdom should add around 5800 km of additional track by 2015, dwarfing its ancestor and bringing advanced high-speed rail services to Saudi Arabia for the first time.
The government has set great importance on the development of the rail network. This was evident in April 2012 when the Council of Ministers approved a new railway transport law that should expedite the implementation of the railway plans. Under the law, the Saudi Railway Authority has been empowered to issue licences and tenders for the construction and maintenance of tracks, facilities and services in the country.
The new network is being seen as a crucial conduit of trade, economic growth and connectivity for passengers. “For freight, the transportation of large volumes has created congestion on other modes, and as such the development of the railway system is the best solution,” Rumaih Al Rumaih, the CEO of Saudi Railway Company (SAR), told OBG. “If we build a sophisticated network, it will help ease the flow of goods, but it must be competitive in order to be successful. As for passenger transport, it is important to develop and create an alternative to the plane. This is a passenger service that can help improve connectivity between neighbouring cities.”
SAR has been tasked with constructing, developing and operating the North-South Railway, which will run from Al Haditha and the Al Jalamaid phosphate mines in the northwest of the country to Ras Al Khair and Jubail on the Gulf coast. The 2400-km line is expected to cost SR20bn ($5.33bn) to complete and will rely heavily on freight services to generate revenue, according to a report by Arab News citing the secretary-general of the Public Investments Fund (PIF) and chairman of SAR, Mansour Al Maiman.
Al Rumaih told OBG that SAR has been successfully cultivating interest in the project from agricultural and mining companies. “In Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to compete with roads because the labour and fuel are cheap. Once the network is completed, it will be easier to compete with roads and the government will incentivise the use of the railway. We are approaching petrochemicals firms and industrial clusters moving large amounts of cargo. We want these companies to build loading facilities and adapt to railway transportation. Railway agreements are long term and require sizeable investment from both sides,” Al Rumaih told OBG.
The line, which will be the longest route to adopt the European train control system, is progressing well. The network includes six passenger stations in Riyadh, Al Majmaa’ah, Al Qasim, Ha’il, Al Jouf and Al Qurayyat, and is expected to be operational by 2014. To this end, SAR has begun investing in rolling stock. In March 2012 it signed a contract worth more than SR553m ($147.43m) with a Spanish railway car construction firm, Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, for the manufacture of five passenger train sets. Delivery of the diesel multiple unit sets is expected within two years. The operational speed of the trains will reach 200 km per hour.
The North-South line is not the only route that will bring high-speed land transport options to the Saudi public. Passengers will also be able to travel from coast-to-coast on the new Landbridge line connecting Jeddah on the Red Sea to Dammam and Jubail on the Gulf coast. The new route will allow passengers to travel between the Kingdom’s two biggest cities, Jeddah and Riyadh, in four to five hours, with trains running at speeds of 220 km per hour. However, the primary aim of the line is to connect the country’s seaports, allowing freight to flow across the country, substantially cutting shipping times between Asia and Europe.
There was some uncertainty over the execution of the project as talks regarding a public-private partnership agreement on a 50-year build-own-operate-transfer contract with the selected preferred bidder, the Tarabot Consortium, stalled. However, in October 2011 it was announced that the project, which could cost up to SR26.26bn ($7bn), will be implemented using funds from the PIF.
Haramain High-Speed Rail
While these two new cross-country tracks will place greater emphasis on freight, a third large-scale project called the Haramain High-Speed Rail will be dedicated to passengers. The project is expected to be completed by January 2014 and will link Makkah to Jeddah, Rabigh and Medina. Abdul Aziz Al Hokail, the president of the Saudi Railways Organisation, told Construction Week Online in March 2012 that efforts were being undertaken to ensure the project would be delivered on time. “We have also told contractors to appoint more workers, deploy more equipment and increase working hours to ensure the project is completed on time,” he said. “We have handed over railway station sites to the contractors, except part of the Makkah station, which will be handed over next month.”
The Saudi-Spanish consortium, Al Shoula Group, is carrying out the second phase of the 480-km-long project, which includes the construction of tracks, the installation of signalling and the electrification of the lines. This consortium will also be responsible for the procurement of 35 trains. The group will then operate and maintain the line for 12 years in a deal worth a total of SR34.88bn ($9.3bn).
This rapid transit across the heavily populated urban conurbation in the Kingdom’s Western Region looks set to be supported by inner-city light rail systems. In August 2012, for example, Reuters reported that plans are being prepared for a SR35bn ($9.33bn) metro in the country’s second-largest city, Jeddah. Ibrahim Kutubkhana, Jeddah’s deputy mayor for projects and construction, told the agency that the network would comprise three lines serving 46 stations and would reach 108 km in length.
This is the third such metro system proposed in the Kingdom, following plans for similar mass transport schemes in Makkah and the capital, Riyadh. The High Commission for the Development of Riyadh has pre-qualified four consortia for the 175-km project in the capital. Bidders for the six-line network include Vinci and Alstom, both of which are French construction and transport companies, Italy’s Ansaldo Energia, Bombardier of Canada, Germany’s Siemens and Stadler Bussnang of Switzerland. No figures had been released as of early 2013 for the projected cost of the metro, but the government has set a completion target of four years.
These projects should help improve the land travel experience for Saudis and visitors alike. However, the government’s ambitions are not limited to intra- and inner-city services in the country, as it is also keen to connect the new network across borders and reach into the wider region.
Al Hokail told the local press that the implementation of their rail plans will “spawn new industries, new cities, new employment opportunities, and there is every possibility that one will one day be able to take a train from Jeddah to cities in Europe”.
Such ambitions are not just in the Kingdom’s hands though; they rely on network extensions and upgrades in a number of countries. However, the government is certainly serious about improving transit of goods and people within the region. In the short to medium term, the focus will be to the east rather than the west. The country has committed to the GCC railway project that will connect Kuwait in the north to Oman in the south with a branch to Qatar.
The 2117-km network will connect with Ras Al Khair and Dammam within the Kingdom and run through 663 km of Saudi territory. The country hopes to complete this section by 2017. The total regional network is slated to cost some $25bn, with a required investment in rolling stock of a further $1.8bn. The project will also require a connection with Bahrain. Current proposals envisage a 90-km link between the island and Saudi Arabia, building a SR15.75bn track ($4.2bn) on a bridge parallel to the existing King Fahd Causeway.
The fact that this extension will simply be the icing on the cake for the Kingdom’s railway expansion illustrates the breadth of its ambition. Indeed, from urban transit to cross-country tracks, the government is planning an integrated rail system that will improve the environment for both passengers and freight while easing the burden on the road network.
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