Full throttle: Moving ahead with local and regional rail network integration


The Kingdom’s rail network has made major strides in recent years, opening up new passenger stations and lines for residents and pilgrims, while also moving tonnes of freight off the road and onto track. Investment in rail infrastructure is set to continue with Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the Gulf Railway, also called the GCC Railway, and the $7bn Saudi Landbridge Project (SLP), which connects the county’s two largest cities of Jeddah and Riyadh, both set to come on-line in the 2020s. As such, the rail sector is expected to play a leading role in realising the Vision 2030 aim of turning the Kingdom into a leading global logistics hub consistent with the country’s economic diversification goals.

Master Plan

Launched in 2010 by the Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO), implementation of the 30-year Saudi Railway Master Plan (SRMP) is being delivered in three phases from 2010 to 2040. The overarching goal of the SRMP is to use the public-private partnership framework to integrate rail into a safe and efficient multi-modal network that would facilitate passenger and freight services, with aims of connecting to neighbouring countries. This includes the creation of a 9900-km network with an initial investment of SR365bn ($97.4bn).

First-phase projects, running from 2010 to 2025, have been allocated a combined budget of SR63bn ($16.8bn) and include the construction and upgrade 5500 km of track. Recently completed or ongoing plans are focused on an upgrade to the two existing freight and cargo lines between Dammam and Riyadh; completion of the SLP, including a 950-km line between Riyadh and Jeddah and a 115-km line between Dammam and Jubail; completion of the Haramain High-Speed Rail (HHSR) line, which provides a direct connection between Jeddah and the two holy cities of Makkah and Medina; the NorthSouth railway line between Riyadh and the Northern Borders region, with connections to Ras Al Khair Industrial Port, Jubail Commercial Port and Waad Al Shamal industrial city; and linkages to the GCC Railway network. International connections include a line from the UAE border through Hofuf, Jubail and Ras Al Khair, and on to the Kuwait border with a branch line connecting Bahrain.

Looking ahead, the SRMP’s second-phase projects to be completed between 2026 and 2033 will see 3000 km of track built at a cost of SR209bn ($55.7bn), while the third-phase plans will see 1400 km of track constructed from 2034 to 2040 at a cost of SR93bn ($24.8bn). The plan also suggested the gradual privatisation of services, while maintaining a separation between the regulatory and operational spheres of railway companies.

Progress Report

As of January 2020 Saudi Arabia’s rail network spanned 5000 km, including 1500 km of new lines. Of the four first-phase projects planned, two have been completed, with the NorthSouth Railway line’s passenger and goods services fully operational as of October 2018 and the HHSR line opening in 2017. As of July 2019 upgrades to the Dammam-Riyadh dual lines and the construction of the SLP were at the design stage.

Concurrently, the state rail service administration is being reformed. In February 2019 the Council of Ministers announced plans to abolish the SRO, effectively making the Saudi Railway Company (SAR) the sole national railway agency. This has meant transferring ownership of SRO’s rail projects and assets, which include the Dammam-Riyadh line and the HHSR, to SAR (see overview).

Rail Freight

In terms of economic diversification goals, rail freight services are a significant development, allowing for the transport of minerals and oil from often remote areas. In the country’s northern mining areas, key freight services include 1526 km of railways that carry more than 10m tonnes of minerals per annum – the equivalent of 800,000 truck loads – as well as the 556-km freight line from King Adulaziz Port in Dammam to the Riyadh Dry Port. The latter network carries 350,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of container cargo per year and provides 486 km of subsidiary lines connecting military, industrial and agricultural areas with the Kingdom’s commercial ports. As the first rail link between the Red Sea and the Gulf, when the SLP is completed it is expected to carry 700,000 TEUs of container cargo and 8m tonnes of freight per year.

Passenger Lines

On the passenger side of operations, the current 449-km Dammam-Riyadh line includes stops at oil-processing facilities at Abqaiq and the town of Hofuf. The latter is set to become a rail crossroads when the GCC Railway line running down Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast is completed. From Riyadh, the North-South line continues to the town of Al Qurayyat, which is located about 40 km from the border with Jordan.

On the east coast, the HHSR runs 450 km with stops at Makkah, Jeddah, King Abdulaziz International Airport, King Abdullah Economic City at Rabigh and Medina. The airport serves as the main station for Jeddah while work is completed on the city’s central station to repair damage from a fire that occurred in September 2019 (see overview).

In Makkah itself, construction work is ongoing to expand the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro Line. The first sections of the 18.1-km line have been operating since 2011, but are planned to be expanded with four new metro lines and 88 stations over a 180-km network. In January 2020 the Makkah Mass Rail Transit Company invited tenders for line D of the expanded metro service.

GCC Railway

GCC member states have been planning an integrated rail network to better connect the peninsula in this regard. It was indicated in 2018 that the GCC Railway could be operating in some parts of the network from 2021 and on, with Kuwait and Bahrain joining from 2023. A rail component is also planned for the new $3.5bn, 25-km King Hamad Causeway to Bahrain. Construction on the new causeway project expected to commence in 2021 (see overview).

The GCC Railway will see 2116 km of rail built along the Gulf, from Muscat, Oman to the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border, with Saudi Arabia to host 663 km of new line running from the border with the UAE, through the Al Batha area of Riyadh, to the border with Kuwait at Al Khafji. Key industrial cities and ports located on the line include Dammam’s King Abdulaziz Port, Jubail Commercial Port and Ras Al Khair Industrial Port, with links to the SLP. This will create a rail link across the Arabian Peninsula for passengers, containers and other freight traffic, strategically bypassing shipping choke points at the Bab Al Mandab Strait and the Strait of Hormuz.

Work is already beginning on the network in neighbouring GCC countries. In August 2018 it was reported that Kuwait had begun construction on the first phase of its network, a 111-km line from Kuwait City to Nuwaiseb on the Saudi border. In January 2019 it was reported in industry media that Saudi Arabia was planning to launch tenders for its portion of the railway in the near future. In March 2019 several contracts were awarded for package A of the 1200-km second stage of Etihad Rail’s network, including a 139-km stretch of track connecting Al Ghuwaifat at the Saudi border with the industrial port of Ruwais in Abu Dhabi. Stage two was approved by the UAE Ministry of Finance and Abu Dhabi Department of Finance in 2018.

Investment Opportunities

In January 2020 SAR brought together leading experts, rail businesses and other stakeholders for The Rail Forum in Riyadh. The two-day event was an opportunity to showcase achievements, highlight opportunities and discuss new technologies.

Officials flagged a number of investment opportunities, which tied in with the aims of the National Industrial Development and Logistics Programme (NIDLP). These included the possibility of establishing a rail wagon manufacturing facility in the Kingdom to support and localise its growing rail sector; an opportunity to open a wheel manufacturing plant for locomotives and wagons that could cater for regional demand; the idea of a plant for packing and winding traction motors to serve SAR’s existing fleet of 400 traction motors; and the development and operation of intermodal rail yards. The NIDLP also highlights plans to build 20 additional passenger railway stations to support the 9900 km of lines due to be constructed and upgraded by 2040 as part of the SRMP. Officials also have floated the idea that some of the new special economic zones being developed under the NIDLP could be serviced by rail lines and facilities.

Saudi Arabia is committed to investing in the rail sector, and authorities have recognised it can play a vital role in helping the country to realise its ambitions of becoming a global intermodal logistics hub.