THE rumble of trains travelling at low speed along the newest and most advanced railway line in the Middle East has started to attract the attention of residents, and interrupt the silence of the desert south of Medina. Five years after the signing of a contract awarded in October 2011, the Saudi Arabian authorities and the Spanish-led consortium in charge of executing the final construction phases and the operation of the Haramain high-speed rail line linking Medina, Jeddah and Mecca have finally reached a detailed agreement which foresees a partial opening for demonstration purposes only this year, followed by the inauguration of the entire line in 2018.
When the project was launched, the biggest obstacle to completing it on time was expected to be the need to reconcile the wealth of experience of operating high-speed railways in temperate countries with the considerable challenge of running high-speed trains in one of the harshest climates in the world. However, as it turned out, delays to the project have been influenced more by the fragility of governance inside the winning Al Shoula consortium.
Al Shoula is a rather heterogeneous group, comprising 14 companies: two from Saudi Arabia - investment group Al Shoula and construction firm Al Rosan - and 12 based in Spain, with the latter including both public and private undertakings. The Spanish Ministry of Public and Development is represented in the consortium through infrastructure manager Adif and national train operator Renfe, both expected to maintain and operate the system for 12 years, plus the national engineering firm Ineco.
Private members of Al Shoula comprise consultants Consultrans; OHL, Copasa and Imathia which are in charge of track construction and maintenance; Inabensa and Cobra (ACS) tasked with installing electrification and electro-mechanical equipment; Talgo for the supply of high-speed trains; Dimetronic (now part of Siemens Rail Automation) for signalling; and Indra, which is responsible for several ancillary and control systems ranging from intrusion detection to ticketing.
The Haramain project has suffered from a series of delays, and is now expected to be ready two years later than originally envisaged. Adif initially estimated that the line would be finished during the second half of 2016, but construction difficulties and governance problems inside the consortium have forced it to revise the opening date several times. In July 2015 the consortium acknowledged problems with the construction of a 3km tunnel on the outskirts of Jeddah but even so its then president Mr Pablo Vázquez stated: “I think we can open the entire line by January 1 2017 and we have caught up with the delays.” Vázquez has since been succeeded by Mr Jorge Segrelles.
A new opening date was announced last November and then ratified on January 16 during a visit to Saudi Arabia by a Spanish delegation led by Spain’s King Felipe VI when Saudi authorities agreed to extend the delivery deadline by 14 months until March 2018 and to acknowledge €150m in cost overruns. Although this was only a minor victory, it was a victory for some of the Spanish construction companies in the consortium. They had initially sought around €500m in higher-than-expected costs compensation, but in exchange for accepting substantially less they got more time to deliver the infrastructure, and consequently avoided delay penalties of more than €400m.
With a €6.7bn budget, the Al Shoula consortium is responsible for the whole of Phase 2 and thus carries the lion’s share of the total weight of the Haramain project, as it includes not only the construction of the superstructure but also the supply of high-speed trains and the operation of the entire system and its maintenance for 12 years after opening. Under Phase 1, a Chinese-French consortium constructed the formationa and sub-grade and the associated civil works, and local firms started the construction of the five stations on the line, some of which were only finished recently.
The line has a total length of 453km and follows the historical Haramain route in the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, connecting Medina in the north with the still scarcely populated King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Jeddah and finally Mecca in the south. The line starts at an altitude of 654m in Medina and descends to KAEC on the Red Sea coast which is at sea level before climbing again to Mecca which is 277m above sea level. The line also serves King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, the main entry point for Hajj pilgrims, via a branch line with two flyovers, one per direction to enable trains to run north to Medina and south to Mecca.
The railway was conceived as a passenger-dedicated line, and will be used only by the trains now being manufactured by Talgo. It is double-track throughout as it will serve every major populated urban center in Western Arabia, but also to maximise capacity in order to ensure a steady flow of the thousands of passengers who travel each day during the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
A special timetable will be operated during this period with trains running at less than 7-minute headways on the Jeddah - Mecca section. The normal service pattern during the rest of the year will consist of four trains per hour between Mecca and KAEC, seven from Mecca to Jeddah and two between Mecca and Medina, with an end-to-end travel time between the two holy cities of less than 2h 30min.
The line will be operated using 35 high-speed trains manufactured by Talgo which has an option to supply 20 more. The trains have a maximum commercial speed of 300km/h, with the two power cars generating a combined output of 8MW. Each train will have 13 cars providing 417 seats, with a total length of 215m.
The trains are based on the T350 platform operating in Spain as series 102 and 112 but have been specifically adapted for the desert climate, with a certified thermal resistance of up to 50ºC and an auxiliary power supply able to keep the air-conditioning system working for more than two hours in case of failure of the overhead electrification.
The trains also feature blowers positioned close to the wheels to clear sand off the track, positive atmospheric pressure, military-grade air filters, reinforced door seals to prevent dust ingress, and polyurethane sheets to the driving cab window to reduce wear from blowing sand.
Delivery of the fleet is on time: eight trains have already been sent to Saudi Arabia, while the remaining trains are being manufactured at Talgo’s plants in Madrid and the Basque Country. Talgo will also supply an additional T350 train for the exclusive use of the Saudi royal family. While the technical specifications of the royal train are secret, it is expected to have a hybrid power supply.
The line has been designed for 320km/h operation and is being equipped with standard-gauge track, overhead electrification at 25kV 60Hz with C-350 catenary, and ETCS Level 2 signalling without a fallback system. All the systems have been designed to take into account the extensive experience accumulated by Adif and Renfe on the Spanish high-speed rail network, but several questions still hang over the operating phase.
The desert sand and dust are expected to pose a challenge. Along 20km of the line there is some risk that advancing dunes, which can travel at a rate of 30m per year, could consume the track, while sections of the line totalling 197km are also exposed to the desert sands. Blowing sand can reduce driving visibility, increase abrasion and degrade the rail-wheel interface, and reduce the flexibility of ballasted track.
Several measures are being implemented to minimise these problems. They include the construction of retaining walls and ditches along the line and the use of slab track instead of ballast in the most exposed sections to ensure that the sand does not percolate the track bed and can be removed easily.
Some observers have also cast doubt on whether the initial passenger demand expectations can be met. The Spanish consortium initially calculated ridership at more than 166,000 passengers per day and up to 60 million passengers per year, which is more than double the total usage of the entire Spanish high-speed rail network. According to some sources, not only could this figure have been overestimated but the fall in oil prices, which has hit the Saudi economy, could also dampen demand and have a direct impact on operating revenue.
Regardless of the challenges posed by the relentless heat and the perennially moving sand, the fact is that where the track is already available trial running has been underway continuously for several months under real climatic conditions. This is providing vital information to help achieve a partial opening between Medina and Jeddah later this year, even if it is restricted to demonstration services, paving the way for high-speed rail to attain new operating parameters in 2018.