AFTER a few false starts, Saudi Arabia’s Haramain high-speed line, a 449km double-track connection between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, finally opened on October 17 2018.

The crown jewel in Saudi Arabia’s recent railway developments, the high-speed line has carried more than 250,000 passengers since opening, performing above expectations. Load factors of 82% have been achieved from the more than 450 trips that have taken place while services are operating at 93% punctuality.

So far so good then for the new line. This is particularly satisfying for Mr Rayan Abdullah Al Harbi, operations and maintenance director for Haramain High-Speed Rail at Saudi Railway Authority (SAR), given the difficulties with operating high-speed trains in desert conditions.

“The slab track we are using can become covered in sand and we are working hard to minimise the impact on the railway,” Al Harbi says. “We have been simulating the movement of sand so we can react accordingly. We have managed to overcome certain problems of the desert so far and we are keen to ensure that the 93% punctuality rate is maintained.”

This is likely to remain a challenge as operation on the line ramps up. In the first quarter of the year the operator was running 40 trips per week, or eight trains per day five days a week, with two days reserved for completing infrastructure work. This is increasing to 60 trips per week in the second quarter as the railway shifts to seven-day operation, 100 per week in the third and fourth quarters, and 200 trips per week in 2020. However, with not all of the Talgo trains delivered yet and the next Hajj scheduled for August, the railway will not yet be able to introduce its intensive operation schedule to meet demand for this vast event. “In the long-term it could be up to 500,” Al Harbi says. “During the Hajj, there are up to 30 million visitors. It is like transporting an entire country.”

Operation and maintenance, like construction of track structures within the second phase of the project, is the responsibility of the Saudi-Spanish Al Shoula consortium which also equipped the line and supplied rolling stock. The consortium, which comprises 12 Spanish and two Saudi companies (see below) including Spanish national operator Renfe, secured the $US 6.7bn contract in October 2011.

Construction and governance issues within the consortium held up progress, pushing back the initial opening date from the second half of 2016 to January 2017, and then to 2018.

Despite the problems, Al Harbi says one of the biggest success stories of the project was the ability of suppliers from across the world to work successfully together in Saudi Arabia. As well as the Spanish consortium, a Chinese-French infrastructure consortium was responsible for formation, sub-grade and associated civil works in the first phase. German Rail (DB) worked as an engineering consultant, while Siemens provided lineside ETCS Level 2 infrastructure and Alstom was responsible for onboard ETCS installation on the Talgo rolling stock.

“It was truly a worldwide project with all companies operating under the UN flag,” Al Harbi says. “The contractors had to integrate to meet the needs of the project, but this is different from what they would do on a European project - they had to adjust to work in a Saudi Arabian environment. They had to take this onboard and integrate all systems in a single envelope to provide a safe operating system, which they have achieved.”

SAR operates a fleet of 35 300km/h Talgo 13-car T350 high-speed trains as well as an additional set for use by the Saudi royal family. The trains have capacity for 417 seated passengers, and are formed of two power cars, four business-class coaches and eight standard-class vehicles as well as a café for a total length of 215m. The power cars have a combined output of 8MW and are adapted for operation in desert conditions, with a certified thermal resistance of up to 50oC. An auxiliary power supply is also available to keep the air-conditioning system working for more than two hours in the event of a traction power outage.

In addition, the trains 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 coatings on the driving cab windscreen to reduce wear from blowing sand.

Test phase

Familiarising the public with the railway was a major part of the test phase. More than 15,000 passengers were carried on 170 test runs beginning on December 29 2017, which Al Harbi says provided vital feedback to adjust the service to better meet passenger needs. “This was all about letting people see and feel and understand what a railway is,” Al Harbi says. “Many people have never been on a train before, or don’t understand what a platform is and how it works.”

Al Harbi says the goal is to transport 60 million passengers per year, operating seven trips per hour between Mecca and Jeddah, and two trains per hour between Mecca and Medina with capacity for 12 during the Hajj. From Medina, the journey time to King Abdullah Economic City is 1h 1min, a further 36 minutes to King Abdul-Aziz International Airport from where it is 14 minutes to Jeddah, and then 21 minutes to Mecca.

Al Harbi says the operation model for Mecca station is similar to an airport in the way it handles high volumes of passengers. He says fast transit via the high-speed line from Jeddah and the airport, the principle entry point to Saudi Arabia for Hajj pilgrims, was critical to the railway’s viability.

“There is no airport in Mecca city, so the only way to get there was by car or bus, which takes around five hours from Medina,” Al Harbi says. “We connect the two holy cities in less than two hours and the station is 5km from the holy mosque. People who are visiting the mosque are now starting to use the railway. And with our trains more than 80% occupied, it shows it was the right decision to build the line.”

As well as continuing to operate a safe and reliable railway and to meet its ridership targets, the goal now is to continue the “Saudisation” of the project.

Government policy requires the Al Shoula consortium to meet a minimum Saudi employment of 70%. According to Al Harbi this is currently at 80% and shows that the railway is Saudi Arabian rather than a European import. Much of the top management is now Saudi and he believes that the railway can help spur development in the country. Saudi Arabia it seems is only just beginning to realise the long-term benefits of its new world-class piece of infrastructure.

“The service is a game changer,” he says. “It will change the urban landscape of the country and help to regenerate areas that people have left to move to the city, helping to restore original values and culture. People will now be able to travel at 300km/h and take the train to work in the large cities. This has lots of implications for quality of life and we expect a lot of development in this in the coming years.”


Haramain high-speed contractors

Al Shoula consortium members
Consultrans: consultancy services
OHL, Copasa and Imathia: track construction and maintenance
Inabensa and Cobra: electrification and electromechanical equipment
Talgo: high-speed trains
Siemens (formerly Invensys Dimetronic) and Indra: ancillary and control systems
Renfe and Adif: operation and maintenance under a 12-year contract
Ineco: engineering
Al Rosan: construction
Al Shoula: finance.
Other notable contractors
DB International: construction consultancy services
Alstom: onboard signalling equipment
Kapsch CarrierCom: GSM-R
Al Rajhi Alliance (China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC), Al Arrab Contracting Company and Bouygues, France): first phase civil works
Station contractors
Foster + Partners and Buro Happold joint venture: design
Construction was carried out by a joint Venture between Saudi Oger & El Seif Engineering for (KAEC (Rabigh) and Jeddah), Saudi Bin Laden (Mecca) and Yapi Merkezi, Turkey, (Medina).