Interview: Bashar Al Malik

What is being done to consolidate the transport sector and expand current infrastructure?

AL MALIK: The whole railway industry is currently undergoing restructuring. In the past there were different entities overseeing railway projects and operating railway lines, leading to some degree of conflict. However, this situation was resolved in 2017 when SAR became the sole owner of all railway infrastructure in the Kingdom. In addition, a merger is taking place between SAR and the Saudi Railway Organisation. Since 2007 huge investments have been taking place to expand the country’s railway network. As a result, the 450-km network has grown to exceed 5000 km in length today. Furthermore, we have expanded coverage to the central, eastern and western parts of the Kingdom, all the way up to the Jordanian northern borders.

Where does Saudi Arabia currently stand in terms of the development of new railway lines?

AL MALIK: The Riyadh-Dammam line – which was built in the early 1950s – was, until recently, the only railway line that existed in the region. It connects King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam on the Gulf coast to the Riyadh dry port in the capital. The line has since been extended to connect with mineral mines in the eastern and northern regions of the country.

A very important addition to our railway network will be the line between Ras Al Khair and Dammam. Upon completion it will connect the North-South railway line with the existing Riyadh-Dammam line and provide increased accessibility to the Kingdom’s seaports. In addition, it will ensure that the petrochemicals industry in Jubail is served through the railway network. This will totally change the logistics performance of this part of the country. The execution of the railway is ongoing and overall progress has so far exceeded 70%. In addition, the completion of the Haramain High-Speed Rail link that connects Makkah, Medina and Jeddah has levelled up the transportation of passengers – notably pilgrims – by providing the fastest train service in the region and the 10th fastest worldwide.

How will the Saudi Landbridge project strengthen regional integration and boost trade in the GCC?

AL MALIK: Saudi Arabia has an excellent transportation system that serves not only Saudi Arabia but the region as a whole. An important element of this is the Saudi Landbridge project, which will create an eastwest corridor connecting the Red Sea with the Saudi Arabian Gulf, providing the whole Kingdom with access to rail and GCC countries with a rail connection to the Red Sea. This will help reduce the amount of traffic going through the Gulf of Aden, thereby ensuring that greater efficiency, reliability and lower costs can be achieved. This will help boost regional integration and better enable GCC countries to take part in global trade.

To what extent does the participation of the private sector help to improve efficiency?

AL MALIK: Moving forwards there is no doubt that the private sector will play an important role in the railway sector, not only in terms of the expansion of the network but also operating and maintaining it. Having the private sector involved will improve efficiency, along with the reliability of the network and related services.

Several opportunities are being floated to the local and international private sector to participate in the railway industry’s expansion and operation. For instance, the Saudi Landbridge project has already started the consulting and initial design phase with the private sector. There are some railway lines that the private sector is extremely interested in getting involved in. However, there are other parts where it is not as feasible. As is the case globally, railway projects require significant capital investment, but the returns on those investments can be low, meaning governments will have to step in and provide some sort of support and guarantees to the private sector.