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New railway service launched

Until two weeks ago there was only one main line passenger railway in KSA, that of the Saudi Railways Organization (SRO) which has operated for 65 years between Riyadh and Dammam. As of two weeks ago, a second route has opened for business, operated by Saudi Railways Company (SAR - yes, I know the acronym should be SRC, but it isn’t).

The SAR line leaves from a station in Riyadh near to the airport in the north east of the city. This is 32km by road from SRO’s Riyadh station which is in the south east area. At some time in the future they may be linked, but it isn’t in the immediate plan. SAR’s route is now open as far as Qassim, some 350km north of Riyadh, and this is the first stage of a line that will extend next to Ha’il then on to Qury’yat which is 1,250km away near to the Jordanian border.

At the moment SAR is operating an introductory service, with one return train each day. So I went for a spin on it to sample the product. The trains used are CAF (Spanish) built diesel units capable of 200kph operation and with a huge amount of resilience built in, as a breakdown in the desert would be very distressing for all. So I am happy to report that the trains are very comfortable and the journey was smooth on the new track which has been well laid by the Chinese contractor. The stations are modern and spacious and, importantly, well air conditioned. Even in early March the temperature is in the mid 20s C and climbing every day, so even now any enclosed glazed space can quickly get very hot.


At Qassim, preparing to depart for Riyadh

The railway is managed by Saudis, but for the first few years there are ex-pat people in all the key management positions, a consortium of SERCo, Network Rail and Freightliner (all UK companies) run the day to day passenger and freight operations. The intention is for Saudi professional railwaymen and engineers to replace the ex-pats in time, and many of the managers have a Saudi “shadow” colleague. As part of their start-up process SAR has had to apply for and have successfully obtained an operating licence from my organisation, the Public Transport Authority. We have been working closely with SAR managers over the past few months and they have demonstrated capability in all the legal, engineering and operational requirements. I had travelled on the line previously when it was operating demonstration journeys for stakeholders, but it was nice to see fare-paying passengers travelling for the first time, and for the majority it was their first experience of railways. The front-line Saudi staff are showing an enormous amount of pride in their product, and that is lovely to see. I understand how they feel, and my memories have drifted back to November 1994 when I was one of the first cadre of employees at Eurostar, and I was on the platform at Waterloo International to see the very first Eurostar service depart for the continent (I couldn’t be on it as I was on duty that day).


Second class carriage interior. Note bays of four with modesty screens for family groups.

When the service finally starts operating to Qury’yat the trains will operate overnight and sleeping provision will be provided and there will be car-carrying vehicles on the train too. So an overnight Motorail service, a concept that was withdrawn in the UK with privatisation in 1995, revived by Great Western from 1998 to 2005 between Paddington and Penzance, and not used at home since. Before you pedants start emailing me to point out that the Channel Tunnel operates car-carrying trains, the product I mean by Motorail is where passengers travel in rail carriages in comfort and their cars are elsewhere on the train, not Le Shuttle which is a short distance operation where travellers stay with their vehicles. I think that SAR introducing this service is a masterstroke and I am guessing it will sell really well, as the alternative is a 14 hour drive on Saudi roads amongst Saudi motorists. If you permit me a further reminiscence, my very first job on the railway was a summer temporary position in 1978 and also in 1979 with Traveller’s Fare, BR’s catering arm. I was based at Perth and regularly worked on the Perth – Kensington Olympia (London) Motorail services. Happy days. After a modicum of lazy research (Wikipedia) “20% off, Fyfe, not acceptable” it looks as if the Saudi service will be the only regular such operation in Asia.

The first few days of SAR’s service to Qassim had operated like clockwork with a 100% punctuality record, but it all fell apart when I boarded. On the northbound journey there was a 20 minute delay between Riyadh and Ma’jamah after a fire system indication fault that required the on board systems to be re-booted. Then, about 40km south of Qassim we encountered a camel that had gained access to the track (presumably the fence had been cut by Bedouin) and struck it at 180kph. This damaged the nose moulding of the front power-car so after a safety inspection we proceeded into Qassim some 40 minutes late. The return journey was without incident, although the on-board technical representative had imposed a 160kmh restriction so that the camel-inflicted damage did not worsen, and we arrived 30 minutes late back at Riyadh. But all in all, a quality product bringing a much-needed alternative option to driving or flying. I wish it well.



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