Renfe is a member of the Spanish Al-Shoula consortium, which is equipping the new line and will operate and maintain it for 12 years.

"I think we can open the entire line by 1 January 2017 and we have caught up with the delays," Renfe chairman and CEO Mr Pablo Vázquez told IRJ at the UIC High-Speed Rail World Congress in Tokyo on July 8, adding that Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO) plans to open the 320km section between King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) in Rabigh and Medina earlier than the remainder of the line to Mecca.

Vázquez says that the initial operating section would attract more traffic if services from Medina could operate beyond KAEC to Jeddah, but this will not be possible because a 3km tunnel on the approach to Jeddah has not yet been completed.

Services will be operated by a fleet Talgo 350 high-speed trains, which are currently being delivered. Each set will seat up to 417 passengers and the trains are configured for operating in multiple.

SRO president H E Mohammad Khalid Al-Suwaiket said last November that the service pattern when the line is fully-completed will be seven Mecca – Jeddah, two Mecca – Medina, and four Mecca – KAEC services per day. A special timetable will operate during the annual Hajj period to accommodate around 3 million pilgrims, when the interval between trains on the Jeddah - Mecca section could be as little as 5-7 minutes.

The line will have daily capacity for up to 160,000 passengers and is forecast to carry more than 50 million passengers per year.

"This project is a challenge because of the extreme climate, the high level of ridership, and the need to accommodate passengers of many different nationalities," Vázquez says.