SAUDI Railway Company (SAR) has been operating heavy-haul phosphate trains between Al Jalamid in the north of the country and Ras Al Khair on the Gulf coast since the first 1392km of the North-South Railway opened in May 2011. So far it has carried more than 4.5 million tonnes, but traffic will start to ramp up soon following the operation of the first bauxite train on May 3 to an aluminium smelter at Ras Al Khair.

The main purpose of building the North-South Railway is to allow Saudi Arabia to start tapping into its huge mineral wealth. As SAR's CEO Dr Rumaih Al-Rumaih told IRJ in Riyadh: "Minerals will become the third pillar of the economy after oil and petrochemicals, and there is no way the mineral industry can exist without the railway."

Construction of the North-South Railway has been a real challenge as it passes through some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet.

"It is a very harsh environment," says Al-Rumaih. "The desert heat and sand are a deadly combination especially for such a geographically-spread project. There are places around the world where railways have been built in somewhat similar conditions, such as northwestern Australia, but there is no sand, and Mauritania which has some sand. But what is new in Saudi Arabia is that we are building a heavy-haul railway with 32.5-tonne axleloads in a desert environment with huge sand dunes. The International Heavy Haul Association is observing our progress."

Construction of extensions to the North-South Railway totalling 1048.6km, which will extend the railway north to Al Haditha on the Jordanian border and south via Buraydah to the capital Riyadh, are 95% complete. This phase of the project includes the construction of six passenger stations. "We will start testing and commissioning of the line to Riyadh next year so that it can open in 2016," says Al-Rumaih.

CAF, Spain, is supplying a fleet of 200km/h trains which include sleeping and catering cars and automobile carriers to provide an overnight service between Riyadh and the Jordanian border. The delivery of the first unit is scheduled for June 2015.

"We expect the new line to carry container traffic, cement and other products, but it is a slow process to win companies over to rail," says Al-Rumaih.

SAR is also constructing a new line, which will become part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) railway, from Ras Al Khair south to Jubail, the largest industrial city in the Middle East which is in the process of doubling in size with the construction of Jubail Industrial City II.

A design tender will be awarded soon for a 54km rail network to serve a new petrochemical plant in Jubail Industrial City II being developed by Sadara Chemical, a joint venture of Saudi Aramco and Dow Chemical. When completed in 2016, the Sadara complex of 26 manufacturing units will be the largest petrochemical facility ever built in a single phase, and it adjoins the PlasChem Park industrial complex.

SAR will transport Sadara products to King Fahd Industrial Port and Jubail Commercial Port.

Phosphate-TrainThe government awarded a series of contracts in February 2013 for the so-called Northern Promise City, a $US 9bn project to develop an industrial complex around a phosphate mine about 120km north of Jalamid and to link it to the SAR network. "We will transport molten sulphur from the Gulf to the north which will be combined with phosphate to produce phosphoric acid, which will then be transported south," says Al-Rumaih. SAR intends to buy at least 1500 tank wagons for this traffic.

SAR has now completed the installation of ERTMS on the operational part of the North-South Railway. "We are testing and commissioning it, and the Saudi Railway Commission should certify it for operation by the end of the year," says Mr Bader Alatni , SAR's operations manager.

But Al-Rumaih believes the cost of the ETCS equipment is too high: "We are building the largest ERTMS system in the world, but we believe the cost of system components needs to be more reasonable."

The current mineral railway is a mixture of ERTMS with US operating practice. SAR is running 3.2km long trains with 155 wagons and four locomotives with distributed traction with a total weight of 16,000 tonnes.

While the existing operation is quite simple, it will soon become more complicated when SAR starts to run trains carrying acid, petrochemicals, containers and passengers. "We have floated a tender for a Class 1 operator to provide operational management and technical assistance," says Al-Rumaih. "We went on a roadshow to select the best people to bid. We should have the new operator onboard by August, and it will be a five-year contract which could be extended."

"We want the new operator to be a partner with SAR - it is not a concession - and to become part of the organisation," says Alatni. "The new operator will shadow existing managers." Part of the contract will entail developing a training scheme for middle management and above.

"We are building people so we need a technology transfer," says Al-Rumaih. "We have nearly 600 staff today, but we estimate we will need up to 6000 people to operate the whole network. We have set up a polytechnic as a stand-alone unit and the first 60 students commenced training at the end of April. We will recruit 100 to 150 trainees a year. We will bring in people with experience to operate the railway, while at the same time we are building the youth to be part of the operation and eventually to lead it."

SAR's next big project is the 950km Landbridge which will connect Jeddah on the Red Sea coast with Riyadh where it will link up with both the North-South Railway and Saudi Railways Organisation's eastern network. The Landbridge will for the first time connect the capital with the Red Sea by rail and provide a coast-to-coast railway with a 17-hour transit, compared with several days by sea. SAR hopes this will be attractive enough to persuade shippers to transfer freight from ship to train.

"There is a huge amount of freight going by road between Jeddah and Riyadh, so the railway will be double track because of the potential volume of traffic," says Al-Rumaih. "Fluor is the project manager for the Landbridge and is defining the construction strategy while Italferr is responsible for design. We don't have any exact dates yet, but it will not take less than six years to construct the line because of the tunnels we will need to build in the west and the need to cross Jeddah to reach the port. We are also studying the construction of a line from Jeddah north to Yenbu."

With the wealth of experience gained from the building the North-South Railway in very harsh conditions, SAR should be well placed to construct the Landbridge.