The age of Saudi railways!

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When the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman, boarded the train from Jeddah on his way to the holy city of Madinah, I would have declared: “That’s one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.”

Wait! It wasn’t a Mars landing, or anything near that. But for those waiting, for ages, for such a train trip to Madinah, it seemed so.

Thankfully, I was among the few hundred invited to one of the early tests of the fast electric train from King Abdullah Economic City to the Prophet’s City. Others have joined Prince Faisal Bin Salman, Emir of Madinah Region, in a longer journey between the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, via the yet-unfinished Jeddah station. From Jeddah, a third trip was led by the Emir of Makkah Region, Prince Khaled Al-Faisal.

It was an amazing experience for all. It was not that it was the first time that we had traveled in such a fast train. Many, including me, have enjoyed such an experience, but not in Saudi Arabia. The last time I did was last year between Vienna and Paris.

Trains are not new to the Kingdom. We have had them for some 70 years now, since King Abdulaziz requested the oil company Aramco to build a line connecting Dammam Port in the Eastern Region to the capital Riyadh. He had a vision for his vast country to be tightly connected coast to coast, north to south, by an extensive network of roads and rails, in addition to air. This was vital to the development program for the newly born Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Seventy years later, the vision is almost complete with 28 airports, 50,000 km of roads and 1,500 km of railways. For the first time in history, the holiest Muslim cities are linked by a 500-km railway with a 300 km/hr express train. Millions of pilgrims, who used to travel five hours by bus, can now make the trip is just over an hour. That is in addition to the light trains in Makkah, and the trains and metro under construction in the holy city.

In Riyadh, a more extensive tram, metro and bus system will be completed in 2019. The length of the Riyadh Metro is 176 km and includes 85 stations. It is integrated with a 24-lane bus network with a total length of 1,083 km, including 776 stations.

A similar project is conceived for the city of Jeddah. Several lines will be built over the course of five years that aim to increase the public transport commuter share to 30 percent from the current 1 to 2 percent. The town will have three metro lines. The first line with a length of 67 km will have 22 stations; the 24-km second line will have 17 stations while the 17-km third line will have seven stations. The public transport system will also have 816 buses operating service to 2,950 stations.

Other cities will follow. Railways are to connect Riyadh with the Port of Jeddah, and the mountainous towns of Taif and Khamis Mushayt. Future plans include a coastal line from Jeddah to Jazan. Railroads connecting Riyadh and Dammam to Qasim, Hail and northern cities near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders are mostly completed. Connection to networks in neighboring countries is planned.

The Gulf Railway, also known as the GCC Railway, is a proposed railway system to connect all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. The rail network will have a total length of 2,177 km. The project estimated to cost US$ 250 billion is scheduled to be completed by 2021.

Each of the six GCC member states are responsible for implementing the portion of the project that lies within their territory and will construct their own railway lines and branches, stations and freight terminals. The cost will be shared by the six countries in proportion to the length of the rail network in each country. As a result, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will spend the most on the project, followed by Oman, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. The Saudi Railway Company will develop the network in Saudi Arabia, Etihad Rail in the UAE, Oman Rail in Oman, and Qatar Rail in Qatar, according to Wikipedia.

Then who knows? Yemen is a good candidate to join, so are Egypt, Syria, Turkey - and on to Europe and Russia. What politics have failed to achieve, hopefully railways can. If Arab governments cannot unite us, a good network of transportation might be able to do so.

Good public transportation is a major tenant of Saudi Vision 2030. We need to use less of our oil resources and protect more of our environment. We need more reliable and efficient means of transport. Welcome to the age of Saudi railways!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah.He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi


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