THE president of Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO), HE Mohammad Khalid Al-Suwaiket, is a man with a mission: he is trying to develop the existing railway linking Dammam on The Gulf with Riyadh as quickly as possible, he is pushing for the rapid completion of the northern section of the Haramain high-speed line, and he wants to complete the national plan to build 19 lines totalling 9900km 10 years earlier than originally conceived.

Al-Suwaiket joined SRO from the Ministry of Transport just over a year ago, and set about motivating staff who had become demoralised because of threats to disband SRO which is a government agency. Although revenue goes back to the Ministry of Finance, Al-Suwaiket is trying to run SRO as a commercial enterprise. "I want to improve services to boost income," he told IRJ.

"When I joined SRO, the staff were thinking like a government agency and didn't see any future, but now we are starting to act like a private sector business and develop the land we have," Al-Suwaiket explains. He is a great believer is getting out-and-about to encourage staff and motivate them. "I have increased staff pay, introduced incentives, and I am looking at working conditions. One year ago, 90% of our passenger services were late, but now 90% of trains are on time."

SRO is currently investing Riyals 3bn ($US 800m) over a two-year period. Track doubling on the direct passenger route between Hofuf and Riyadh is almost complete, while a bypass around Hofuf is under construction. The line is being equipped with ETCS Level 1 and GSM-R, and there is a programme to eliminate level crossings. Camel bridges have been built, and the line will be fully fenced with an intrusion monitoring system. SRO is also taking measures to stabilise drifting sand, and has a system to monitor the onset of sand storms in order to warn train drivers to reduce speed to 100km/h or less if a severe storm is detected.

SRO's fleet of eight push-pull diesel trains formed of five coaches and a power car supplied by CAF, Spain, are currently restricted to 140km/h, but completion of the upgrading will allow the trains to be accelerated. Trial operation at 180km/h without passengers on board was due to start last month, with further tests scheduled in July during the searing summer heat. All these improvements should enable SRO to cut the Dammam - Riyadh journey from 4h 20min to around 3 hours by the end of the year.

Another four trains are on order from CAF with the first scheduled to arrive in January. These will have more capacity than the existing trains as they will have seven coaches per train. "There is a big demand, but we are a bit limited until the next four trains enter service," says Mr Abdullah Balhaddad, SRO's vice-president for operations and maintenance. "We plan to award a tender for more passenger trains in three months' time."

Al-Suwaiket is keen to drive traffic up: "We carried 1.2 million passengers last year and I want us to reach 1.5 million by the end of this year and 2 million next year," he says. A new station is under construction at Al Kharj on the freight line and Al-Suwaiket wants to introduce two trains a day between there and Riyadh by the end of the year. He has also set his sights on reintroducing a passenger service between Hofuf and Haradh, and eventually from there to Al Kharj.

The existing stations in Riyadh, Hofuf and Dammam are to be rebuilt and developed at an estimated cost of Riyals 1-1.2bn to enable them to cope with much greater passenger flows. Riyadh station will be expanded from six to eight tracks, and will be able to handle seven trains/hour and 2830 passengers/hour compared with just one train and 400 passengers/hour today.


SRO is one of the few railways outside North America to operate double-stack freight trains. It carries 80% of the containers arriving at Dammam port destined for Riyadh and reached a record of 534,000 containers last year. A new container terminal is under construction at the port and SRO will complete the rail link to it in October, while a logistics area is being built at Riyadh dry port. SRO has issued a tender for another 150 container wagons, and is taking delivery of 16 locomotives from EMD.

While containers are the core business, SRO is also trying to attract other types of freight. It already carries cement and recently won a second contact to move corn from Dammam to Riyadh. It currently has a third of the total flow of corn but Al-Suwaiket wants to carry it all.

Total freight traffic increased by 7% last year to 4.5 million tonnes, and SRO expects to top 5 million tonnes this year. It recently placed an order for 500 wagons, partly to replace older vehicles and partly to respond to growth.

A contract worth around Riyals 400m will be awarded soon to double the track on the 213km section between Hofuf and Haradh, while the existing track on the freight line will be upgraded. "It currently takes 14 hours for a freight train to travel from Riyadh to Dammam, but by the end of next year we expect to reduce this to between 9 and 10 hours," says Balhaddad.

DB International has a contract to help SRO raise safety standards. "We are trying to ensure safety is an absolute priority and to change the safety culture to bring it up to international standards," says Mr Mohammad Makmoud, SRO's Haramain phase 2 project manager. SRO also has its own training centre including two train driver simulators, one for locomotives and one for the CAF passenger trains.

High speed

The Riyals 60bn (excluding land acquisition) Haramain project to build a 450km 300km/h line linking Jeddah with the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina is taking shape. So far 56% of the civil works have been completed and 185km has been handed over for installation of the superstructure. "We expect to work very fast on the 320km section from King Abdallah Economic City (KAEC) to Medina because it passes through an open area where there are few interfaces with other modes," says Mahmoud. "Medina station is 68% complete and KAEC station is well advanced. However, the Jeddah - Mecca section is being built in a very crowded, developed area." An added complication for the Spanish contractors is that Mecca station is located in the Haram area of the city where non-Muslims are forbidden to enter. Mecca and Jeddah will be the largest stations on the line as they will handle the most Hajj pilgrims, while Jeddah airport station is being built by the airport authority. The line passes through mainly rocky terrain so most of the track will be ballasted, with only 60km of slab track required through a sandy area.

haramain-station"We were instructed by SRO in late April to start the first operational phase between KAEC and Medina, so we are now discussing the schedule," Mr Luis Sánchez Monserrat, general manager of Adif Spain's Saudi Arabian division, told delegates attending Fleming Gulf's Fifth Middle East Rail conference in Riyadh last month.

The main workshop is located near Medina and Al-Suwaiket says it should be complete by the end of the year in time for the arrival of the first of the 35 trains being supplied by Talgo, Spain. "Renfe has already started training the first train drivers in Spain, and the best of these will become trainers for the next batch of trainees," says Al-Suwaiket. The operating and control centre along with the training centre are located in Jeddah, but a back-up OCC will be provided on the initial operating section.

Mahmoud expects a six-month period of test running to begin in mid-2015. "We should start carrying passengers between KAEC and Medina by the end of 2015," he says. The civil works for the rest of the line should also be completed by then.

The Spanish Al-Shoula consortium, which is equipping the new line, will operate and maintain it for 12 years. According to Mr Wasmi Alfarraj, SRO's director general for expansion projects, two levels of service will be provided. "We will operate seven trains per hour between Mecca and Jeddah and four trains per hour from there to Medina with the normal timetable," says Alfarraj. "We will have a special timetable which will be decided each year for the Hajj period to cope with the 3 million pilgrims. This will probably mean a train every 5 to 7 minutes between Jeddah and Mecca, and a less frequent service to Medina. Each train can carry 417 passengers but we will be able to operate two trains in multiple."

The journey time from Mecca to Medina will be between 2 hours and 2h 30min depending on the number of intermediate stops. The line will have a daily capacity of 160,000 passengers and is expected to carry more than 50 million passengers a year.

A second high-speed railway is planned and SRO is currently assessing bids from eight consultants to conduct a 10-month feasibility study into a line linking Riyadh with Dammam. The winner will conduct a market and traffic study, develop an appropriate financial model, and advise on the best way to implement the project. Dammam is the most important economic centre in Saudi Arabia because of the oil industry and Riyadh is the largest city, and at 450km apart the distance is ideal for high-speed rail to make an impact.

Gulf Railway

Two sections of the planned 2177km Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) railway extending from Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman are already under construction: from Ras Al Khair to Jubail in Saudi Arabia and part of Etihad Rail's new line in the UAE. Saudi Arabia will have 663km of the GCC railway on its territory.

"I want to concentrate on the southern section first because we can use it domestically and I want to open it in 2018," Al-Suwaiket says. "The northern section to Kuwait will follow later because Kuwait is not ready yet. The UAE wants to open the line for freight initially, but I want to operate passenger trains as well because we can serve towns south of Dammam." The GCC is still studying the best alignment for the link from Dammam to Bahrain.

A common set of standards, operating and safety rules are being determined for the Gulf railway along with coordinated customs and immigration procedures. "It will be a combination of US and European standards, with 32.5 tonne axleloads, UIC 60 rails, ETCS Level 2 and GSM-R," Alfarraj explains. The main control centre will be located in Saudi Arabia. The maximum speed will be 200km/h for passenger trains and up to 120km/h for freight. The railway will be single track initially, but designed so that a second track can be laid in the future.

The Saudi railway master plan calls for around 5500km of lines to be built by 2025 roughly corresponding to the projects currently under construction or approved, followed by another 3000km by 2033 and around 1400km by 2040. But Al-Suwaiket is impatient: "I want to accelerate the new rail projects to complete them by 2030 rather than 2040." Either way, Saudi Arabia will for the first time have a national rail network which is connected to its neighbouring countries and equipped with the latest technology.

Developing a local rail industry

THE first steps are being taken to develop a railway manufacturing industry in Saudi Arabia which can supply the expanding rail and transit networks in the Middle East. To achieve this SRO is encouraging manufacturers to localise production in Saudi Arabia.

Freight Car America will outsource and supervise the production of 250 cement wagons in Dammam as part of its contract to supply 500 wagons to SRO. Discussions are at an advanced stage with Knorr-Bremse to set up a factory to produce brake pads, while Vossloh and its Saudi partner Masar have agreed to build a turnout plant on SRO land in Dammam. Vossloh is also considering setting up a factory to make fastenings.

"We are trying to get Siemens to build a test track in Saudi Arabia to test and commission all types of passenger train under Saudi conditions," says Al-Suwaiket.

Plasser & Theurer is expected to construct its own track maintenance vehicle workshop on land leased from SRO, while SRO is talking to Timken to establish a roller bearing maintenance workshop in Dammam.