Three years from now Saudi Arabia will have one of the most extensive rail networks in the world. It will rival grids in such advanced nations as Spain, France and Germany. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah has approved billions of riyals in recent years for the construction of multiple projects to link cities on the Kingdom’s northern border with Jordan, such as Haditha, Qurrayat and Hazm Al-Jalamid with Buraidah, Majmaa and Riyadh in the center. The rail network will connect Dammam on the east coast with Jeddah on the west coast. High-speed trains will link Makkah with Jeddah, Rabigh and Madinah. Dammam will be connected to Jubail and Ras Al-Khair. These are mind-boggling projects. They will change the face of Saudi Arabia. They will likely stimulate a new industrial revolution in the Kingdom.
To understand these complex railway projects, Arab News turned to the sharp, alert and seasoned mind of 68-year-old Abdul Aziz M. Al-Hokail, president of the Saudi Railways Organization. He is at the center of these game-changing scenarios. A 1964 petroleum-engineering graduate from the University of Texas in the United States, Al-Hokail spent nearly four decades in Saudi Aramco where he carried out a number of projects, small and large. He was executive vice president when he finished his career with Saudi Aramco in August 2002. Obviously the experience of building oil terminals, refineries, pipelines and oil and gas separation plants has stood him in good stead while executing the mega railway projects.
This is Al-Hokail’s fifth year at the SRO after successfully completing his first four-year term last year. Born in Majmaa near Riyadh, he went to a local school for his elementary education and attended high school in Riyadh. Like all Aramcons, he is a stickler for time. We were to meet at 10 a.m. and we were ushered into his spartan office at the SRO headquarters in Dammam exactly on the dot. A tall and kind man, Al-Hokail takes great delight in explaining the immense projects in much detail and constantly points to a map of Saudi Arabia indicating which city is located where and how will it connect to other cities in other provinces.
“We currently have 1,200 km of rail lines, and when all these projects are completed in three or four years, we will have 7,000 km,” he says. “These projects will spawn new industries, new cities, new employment opportunities, and there is every possibility that one will one day be able to take a train from Jeddah to cities in Europe.”
In the following exclusive interview with Arab News, Al-Hokail narrates fascinating details.
Q: Thank you for talking to Arab News. We keep hearing in the media about various railway projects. Can you please give us an idea about what is happening?
A: Thank you. We are going through a lot of expansion. Currently there are five big projects that are in various stages of development in the Kingdom. Let me say here that these projects are not necessarily with the Saudi Railways Organization. Some of them have already been completed such as the Maaden line which stretches from Hazm Al-Jalamid in the north to Zubairah and Ras Al-Khair. Thanks to this line, phosphate from Hazm Al-Jalamid and bauxite from Zubairah are being taken for processing to Ras Al-Khair on the east coast.
Q: That is Project No. 1. What about No. 2?
A: Yes, Project No. 2 will link Zubairah with Riyadh. It is under construction and is expected to be completed by 2014. This line is designed to carry both passengers and freight. The train speed on this line will be about 200 km per hour. It will extend to Haditha on our border with Jordan. We will then have Haditha, Zubairah, Hail, Qassim, Majmaa and Riyadh all linked together. This is the North-Riyadh Project.
Q: Project No. 3?
A: It is the Haramain High Speed Rail project which will link Makkah, Jeddah, Rabigh and Madinah. All contracts for this project are signed, and it has begun. The project’s first phase consists of civil work, and it is moving along very well. I would say 45 percent of the first phase is so far complete. The civil work involved acquisition of land, defining the alignment, digging it all up and flattening it by pouring in tons and tons of cement — basically getting the ground ready for laying tracks. Also part of the civil work is to construct 154 bridges, a viaduct and more than 500 tunnels.
Q: More than 500 tunnels?
A: Yes, there will be more than 500 tunnels on the line between Makkah, Jeddah, Rabigh and Madinah. As I said, 45 percent of Phase 1 is complete. The remainder of Phase 1 is the construction of railway stations. This contract was awarded last year. The stations will be built in Makkah, Jeddah, Rabigh and Madinah. There will be two terminals in Jeddah — one at King Abdulaziz Airport and another at the King Abdullah intersection on the Jeddah-Makkah Expressway. Phase 2 of this project will involve the laying of tracks and getting the trains on them. We will have 36 trains on this route. Their speed will be more than 300 km per hour. This crucial component of the project was awarded last year to Al-Shoula consortium, which comprises Saudi and Spanish companies. The project includes construction of railway tracks, installation of signals and telecommunication systems, electrification, operational control center and procurement of trains. This project will be completed by the end of 2014 or early 2015. Insha’Allah.
Q: Isn’t Project No. 4 the Land Bridge?
A: Yes, that is correct. It has many overlapping components which I will explain in a moment. Land Bridge will connect Ras Al-Khair with Jubail and Jubail with Dammam and then it will link with our existing network from Dammam to Riyadh. From Riyadh, it will go on to Jeddah and Yanbu. Actually, there will be a loop from Haditha in the north to the east coast cities on the Arabian Gulf and then pass through the whole of Saudi Arabia to end in Yanbu on the Red Sea. This then is the fourth project.
Q: And the last project?
A: It is what is called the Gulf Cooperation Council Railway Project. The precise length of the network will be 1,940 km, going from Kuwait to Ras Al-Khair and on to Oman and Qatar; it will run parallel to the Arabian Gulf coast. Our portion of this project is 663 km and it has to be completed by 2017 as per the decision made at one of the GCC summits. So this completes the overview of the five projects.
Q: These projects will surely change the face of Saudi Arabia.
A: Yes, without a doubt. This will lead to a big transformation. We currently have 1,200 km of rail lines between Riyadh and Dammam. We have two separate lines between the two cities. One is for freight and the other for passengers. The freight line takes a longer route through the desert and is about 700 km long. When all the new projects are completed in another three years we will have 7,000 km of tracks. That is phenomenal. Saudi Arabia will rank alongside some of the most advanced countries in the world such as Spain, Italy and Germany.
Q: What is the combined cost of all these projects?
A: I cannot say. (Independent reports say these projects run into billions and billions of riyals). What I can say is that all these projects have been approved and money has been allocated.
Q: Let me ask you a question from a layperson’s point of view: When will we able to travel to Madinah from Jeddah on the high-speed trains?
A: By the end of 2014 or by early 2015 at the latest.
Q: How long will it take for a passenger in Riyadh to get to Jeddah?
A: It will be a four- or five-hour journey.
Q: And what about those who want to travel to Jeddah or Madinah from Dammam. When will they be able to make the journey by train?
A: This depends on when the Land Bridge Project is completed. The Council of Ministers approved the project three months ago and it will probably take three years to build. Therefore, we should be able to get this network up and running by 2015. Insha’Allah.
Q: What impact will the new railway lines have on industries?
A: Huge impact. Instead of having a factory in Jeddah or Dammam, businesspeople can have them all over the country along the railway line. This will give a big boost to the rapid transport of goods within the country. Whole new towns will develop along the railway route. If need be, we will put new stations for new cities. Traveling to Makkah and Madinah will become easier, more affordable and more reliable. Now people do not have options. They have to either take a flight or drive the long distance. There will be a lot of social interaction. Trains will bring people closer. There will be no great movement toward urban centers. Tourism will flourish. Trade will boom. Goods coming from China and India will find easy access to Europe. Trains can take these goods from Jubail and Dammam ports and deliver them at the Jeddah Islamic Port from where they can be sent on to Europe. This will save a great deal of time and money. To give you an idea, a consignment from Dammam can reach Jeddah in 12 hours. The same journey takes more than a week by sea. Our rail links will go up to the border with Jordan, and Jordan is planning to link our network with their system. The Jordanian network goes up to Syria, Turkey and Europe. From Riyadh, you will be able to go via train to most of the cities in Saudi Arabia and outside the Kingdom.
Q: So what you are saying is that there is a good possibility of Saudis and expatriates going by train from Jeddah or Riyadh to destinations in Europe. Is that correct?
A: Yes, that is correct. All these links create those possibilities. Let me state here that these railway lines will serve only eight out of 13 provinces in Saudi Arabia. We are working on a master plan to connect all the other provinces in the years to come. Jazan, Najran, Baha, Asir and Tabuk -- all will be linked in one way or the another. But right now our hands are full with these big budget projects and we have to prioritize our needs and carry out our ideas and projects in a very systematic way. And that is what we are doing.
Q: How is the private sector benefiting from all these railways projects?
A: Well we have talked about trade. Who is going to do that? The private sector. These networks will give Saudis low-cost access to neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council and European markets. They will also shift lorry transport which damages road infrastructure to rail transport. More competition and modes of transport will benefit all aspects of the economy and attract additional foreign direct investment because rail transport is part of the criteria for foreign companies. We will have workshops, factories and training institutes. Who will benefit from them? The private sector. You have to remember that rail networks lead to industrial revolutions. This has happened in Europe and the United States when trains were introduced in the 1800s. They brought coal and steel to all areas and then large factories were built. Industry is wholly dependent on transportation of goods and trains are the best means of transportation. They are cheaper, environment-friendly, safe and reliable.
Q: New industrial towns and residential areas will spring up along the railway route. That sounds interesting.
A: Yes, yes. I just mentioned the United States. Look at the transportation history of other nations when trains were introduced. Look at Taiwan. When they laid the rails from Taipei to the south, there was a vast empty expanse. There were not many cities along the train route. Three years after the trains began operating, many industrial towns and cities had sprung up along the route. It is natural. That is what happens everywhere. So definitely the railroads will have a great impact here in Saudi Arabia. People in Kharj, for instance, will stay there. They will not have to come to Riyadh seeking work. People in Riyadh will be able to move out of the city and commute to work by train. This is bound to happen.
Q: Do you think all these projects have come a little late?
A: It is never too late. We shall soon be there. Insha’Allah.
Q: There surely must be a lot of focus on railways in the national budgets?
A: Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah is really the one who is leading the development and the expansion of the railway projects. He is always personally monitoring project timelines and we are very happy with his unfailing and constant support.
Q: Has money ever been an issue in executing these huge projects?
A: So far it has not been an issue because the railways are a high priority for the government. It is part of the infrastructure such as roads, ports and airports.
Q: What about talk of the organization’s being privatized?
A: Hopefully we will privatize the Saudi Railways Organization. We will then have companies that will operate all these railway lines. That would certainly be more effective. It will take place once the Land Bridge Project is complete. The Riyadh-Dammam line that we are now operating will also be privatized. That will be going to a new investor or new company. We will gradually phase out Saudi Railways. In the meantime, we are setting up the regulatory body. This has been approved by the Council of Ministers. That is why we are giving licenses and permits to entities interested in different lines. The Mashair Railway from Mina, Muzadalifa and Arafat was given to one entity. They ran it last year. We gave permission to Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh to have its own on-campus metro. We granted them the license. We are in the process of giving a license to Saudi Railway Company (SAR) to operate the North-South line.
Q: You mentioned the metro at Princess Nora University. What about metros in Riyadh or Jeddah?
A: The relevant authorities in Riyadh have already approached us for issuing a license and a safety certificate for a metro. We will have metros in Riyadh, Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah. These will be light trains operating within the city limits. However, the Ministry of Rural Affairs and other development authorities are carrying out these projects. Feasibility studies have been done and the financial aspects have been taken care of. It is just a matter of time before we will have individual rail networks in these cities.
Q: Let us go back to the projects you explained at the beginning. You talked about the Jubail line connecting with the existing Dammam-Riyadh line. We were given to understand that there was going to be a new express line to Riyadh from Dammam because the existing network was not geared for high-speed trains. Is that correct?
A: I will make it clear. Now we have two lines — one for passengers and one for freight. The freight line is old. The passenger line is comparatively new but it is also 15 years old. We are doing two things. One, we are upgrading the current line so it will be able to handle high-speed trains. At the same time, we are building another line parallel to the existing passenger line. This will, we hope, be completed by June this year. We created the new express line so that we do not have to disturb the current line which is in daily operation. We have just gotten new trains for the existing upgraded route and we believe they will be in service next month. The new trains are designed for high-speed but even the upgraded track cannot take more than 180 km per hour. Even then it will shorten the travel time between Dammam and Riyadh considerably. Currently it takes five hours to go from Riyadh to Dammam. With the new trains this time will be reduced dramatically.
Q: There have been reports of accidents on the current Dammam-Riyadh line. What steps, if any, have been taken to avoid them when new lines are being laid? Will we have elevated tracks, for example?
A: We have had some accidents but fortunately they were minor ones. Most of them were a direct result of the ignorance of the four-wheel vehicle drivers. They want to take a short cut, especially when crossing the freight line that runs through the desert. They cut the fence. Sometimes when they see a train approaching they panic and leave their cars or pickups on the track and this of course results in accidents. Sometimes when the fences have been cut, camels stray onto the lines. At present we have a dedicated crew working round the clock in order to repair fences. On the passenger line, Alhamdulillah, we have not had many accidents. Our main challenge on the passenger line is the sand. We have people working 24 hours a day cleaning the track and removing the sand from the tracks.
Q: Your vast experience at Saudi Aramco must have helped you chart a new course for Saudi railways. Did you ever believe that you will one day become the architect of Saudi railways?
A: Let me be honest. There have been many architects before me. Yes, I am very happy to be in this position at this point in time. At Saudi Aramco, I have been closely involved with a number of big projects — building oil terminals, refineries, pipelines and oil and gas separation plants. I worked with them for 38 years. So, yes, working on those projects helped me a great deal. I like my current job because it is challenging. It is not dormant.
Q: Are you waiting to get onto the high-speed train to Jeddah just as we are?
A: Yes, like everyone I am excited. In the meantime, however, I keep traveling on the train to Riyadh from Dammam. I keep checking them out.