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KSA Railways Update

My day job in Saudi Arabia is that of chief railway accident investigator for the Transport General Authority. In the 5 years since I started many things have changed, not least the role that I have needed to assume. Whilst the TGA has grown as an organisation, my Saudi colleagues look to me for all manner of advice on railways which stray very far from my original brief on accident investigation. This now includes all aspects of railway safety, railway operations, level crossings, dangerous goods, performance and infrastructure management. I have also dabbled in railway economics, fire safety, flood prevention, health/Covid protocols, education of new staff, law and regulation fine tuning, rolling stock register creation, and security advice. As if that wasn’t enough, colleagues from other departments in the TGA ask me to review and better-anglicise letters they are sending to their stakeholders outside of the Kingdom – for example correspondence from our Marine department to the International Maritime Organisation. There’s never a dull moment, and this has had the effect of turning me from a specialist into a generalist, which makes work varied and interesting.

And outside of the office environment, there have been big changes on the railways themselves. The original railway (SRO) which operates passenger and freight between Riyadh and Dammam merged this month to become a single entity with SAR, which operated the passenger services from Riyadh to the northern cities of Qassim, Hail and Al Jouf, and will soon be extending to Qurriyat near the Jordanian border. SAR also operates mineral and bulk liquid freight services between mines, factories and ports in the north and east. When I started, SAR didn’t yet operate passenger trains , nor the chemical traffic it operates today. It has had to go through the safety approval processes overseen by the TGA to do so.

The automated people-mover system at Princess Noura University for Women in Riyadh is the least-changed system in the kingdom with only minor tweaks to its existence, these being confined to changes of its operating company. A new APM has gone live, in Jeddah at the international airport there. Opened in mid-2020 along with the new terminal 1, it is similar to the Bombardier-built transit systems in T5 at Heathrow, at Dubai, and a few other airports around the world. Visiting this one for audits etc requires a lot of paperwork and security clearances because it is airside of security and immigration which means when visiting, I have to get special clearance to avoid passport control.

In Makkah (Mecca) the Hajj metro didn’t operate during the 2020 Hajj pilgrimage due to the pandemic restricting the numbers of visitors to the Hajj. As previously described, this railway only operates for 1 week a year, so is currently mothballed. We don’t know if it will be needed for this year’s Hajj, or not. Apart from a change in operator (a Chinese company taking over from a Malaysian one – ie the operator of Beijing Metro replacing the Kuala Lumpur systems operator) there has been little physical change on the Hajj metro there.

But the biggest change has been the introduction of the Haramain high-speed railway which links Makkah, Jeddah and Madinah (Medina). This opened – with operating restrictions at 200 km/h in late 2018, and after completion of installation and commissioning work it is now operating at its design speed of 300 km/h. Unfortunately, it suffered a severe setback in September 2019 when the huge showpiece station in Jeddah city caught fire. At the time of writing it still hasn’t reopened, but the 2 tracks built in a hurry avoiding the station to the east have now been lifted and rail traffic again uses the platform tracks, but trains currently don’t stop there.


Further grand plans are in the pipeline. The next major project to open – hopefully later this year – will be the Riyadh Metro, with its 6 lines and 84 stations, and a budget cost of $US 22.5 billion. That’s over £16 billion , which to put into perspective is 50% of the cost of the UK’s first estimate of the HS2 project in 2010. It remains to be seen how much the final cost of Riyadh Metro will be, prices for these mega-projects only go one way, and that isn’t down.

Next up will be the “Landbridge” project, linking the Red Sea with the Persian Gulf (a.k.a. the Arabian Gulf) on a new route from Jeddah to Riyadh and linking into the existing SAR routes. This predominantly freight link will be a game-changer for freight because it will link the east coast cities and industries to the world markets via the Suez Canal with fewer Saudi ships having to navigate the Straits of Hormuz which are the tricky political waters between the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.  

Other guided transport schemes announced but not yet begun are:

·       the 15km Corniche Tramway in Jeddah, which will trundle up and down the seafront of the city (this was announces in 2014, but local issues including dealing with groundwater have delayed building),

·       a 170km Hyperloop and other feeder systems for the new Neom city, now being referred to as “The Line” (see  

·       a 46km “low-carbon” tramway system at Al Ula to boost tourist connectivity there.

Both Neom and Al Ula are the focus of massive investment with the former having a notional cost of $US 100 – 200 billion in the Tabuk Province, and Al Ula being part of a $US 15 billion local investment that will see huge infrastructure investment, hotels and visitor experiences aimed at attracting 2 million visitors per year. I am so glad that Elaine and I managed to see the place last year, in a near-original state with just a perimeter fence around the UNESCO site. Every time I think about it, the first verse lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” song appear in my mind.  

The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) Railway, intended to link Kuwait, KSA, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE and Oman has seen little progress, but with the announcement in January this year that KSA and Qatar had settled their diplomatic differences, I hope that this will move from the planning pages and out onto the sand. A small part of this is being completed in KSA, with SAR railway linking Jubail and Dammam, expected to be completed next year. However major works, including a new causeway for high speed rail between Dammam and Manama will take a long time to complete.

For obvious reasons I cannot provide any information that I am privileged to obtain through my work, so all the above has been provided from what is already in the public domain and can be found on various websites. There don’t appear to be any accurate maps available showing the Saudi Railway Masterplan, but one that shows planned main routes can be seen at­_fig3_325748964

So, much progress and exciting times ahead for the transport planners and operators (and regulators too) for the railways in KSA. But, as always, hopefully less work for the accident investigator.

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