Saudi Arabia’s railway plans as impressive as construction is challenging
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia raised eyebrows by saying some 8,000 kilometres of new railway lines would be constructed in the kingdom, more than doubling its existing network. It would be one of the most ambitious railway construction drives in the world in terms of size and scope, yet the challenges are equally formidable.
Building new railway lines across Saudi Arabia’s unique geography presents a major challenge, as reflected in a multi-billion-dollar price tag of the various new railway lines. When the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) prepared the Saudi Railway Master Plan (2010-40) more than a decade ago, the total cost of all new lines combined was put at 97 billion dollars. Going by the annual inflation rate alone, that figure would amount to more than 121 billion dollars at present (106,6 billion euros).
Three development stages
The 2010 master plan split the various proposed works into high-priority, medium-priority and low-priority projects. The high-priority, development stage I projects have a combined length of 5,500 kilometres and were planned for the period 2010-2020. The development stage II works call for 3,000 kilometres of new track between 2026 and 2033.
While Al-Falih shared few if any details in January, it seems he was talking about new railway lines to be constructed as part of the first two development phases in particular, some of which have by now already been completed. Chief among them the Saudi Railway Company (SAR) North-South lines, which account for a total of 2,750-kilometres, and the 1,242-kilometre Riyadh-Qurayyat line, opened in 2017.
Unique challenges to construction
With the exception of the Mecca-Medina high-speed line, Saudi Arabia’s railway lines to date have been constructed in areas with relatively low levels of elevation. The planned lines will have to traverse a far more mountainous terrain. That is not to say railway construction to date has been easy. The kingdom is vast and many areas are therefore remote and difficult to reach. Getting manpower, materials and equipment on site presents unique challenges.
Additionally, the climate is inhospitable for most of the year, making for an arduous construction effort. Excessive temperatures, sand storms and shifting sand dunes also present unique challenges for the infrastructure once it is in place.
Yet as evidenced by the recent comments by the minister, Saudi Arabia seems determined to press ahead with railway construction. The kingdom’s current network is split between the so-called north train network and the east train network. The Haramain High Speed Rail between Mecca en Medina is not included in either network by Saudi Arabia Railways, but treated as separate.
The high-speed service is carried out with T350 train sets by Spanish manufacturer Talgo. On other lines, CAF push-pull units are in use. The train cars are specifically designed to offer passenger comfort in outside temperatures of up to 55 degrees. Additionally, at least 60 US-built EMD diesel locomotives are in use in the kingdom.
In broad strokes, and based on information compiled by Arab News, the envisioned new connections are the following:
- Halat Amar-Medina
- Yanbu-Mecca-Jazan line
- Dhalm-Khamis Mushait
- Khamis Mushait-Abha
- Damman-Salwa-Al Bartha
- Khafji-Damman line
- Halat Amar-Medina feeder line to Duba
- Buraidah-Medina-Yanbu line
- Haradh-Al Bartha
What is striking about the planned connections is that they almost without exception mirror Saudi Arabia’s road network. In that sense, the country is not going off the beaten path.