RAILWAY TO HEAVEN

Saudi Arabia 2016 | TRANSPORT | FOCUS: HARAMAIN HIGH SPEED RAIL

A new high-speed electrified railway line will allow passengers to travel between Mecca and Medina in 2.5 hours. The Haramain High Speed Rail (HHR) is considered a priority project as it will be a faster and more comfortable alternative for the huge mass of pilgrims that visit those cities during Hajj season.

On June 4, 2002, the Supreme Economic Council approved the construction of the HHR, a railway project that would link the two Saudi Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. The same resolution stated that the project would be implemented on a build, operate, and transfer (BOT) basis, which implied the participation of the private sector. A Council of Ministers Resolution established that the state-owned Public Investment Fund (PIF) would finance the project through interest-free loans.

In March 2009, the government awarded the first package of contracts, worth SAR6.79 billion ($1.8 billion), to Al–Rajhi Alliance, a consortium made of two Saudi companies, a French entity, and the Asian behemoth China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC). Those contracts referred to the design of the infrastructure and to the construction of the route civil works, whereas four different contracts had been awarded on the lowest financial bids submitted for the construction of four or five passenger stations proposed in the master plan for a total of SAR9.37 billion ($2.5 billion). Mecca and Medina will be in fact the two terminus stations, while through stations will be built in Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC).

A joint venture between Foster and Buro Happold (FHJV), two prestigious UK-based engineering consulting firms with long standing experience in mega projects, was appointed for the design of the stations. Each one of them will have its own identity; however, they will all embed the traditional concepts of Islamic architecture, particularly in the case of Mecca and Medina. In addition to the main building, the terminals will feature cafes, shops, and restaurants, as well as a mosque, a VIP lounge, and a helipad. The four stations are currently under construction and will offer a full experience to travelers.

As of today, most of the infrastructure has been built and the high-speed line is expected to serve the first passengers in 2017. The Western Railway, as the line is also called, aims to reduce the commuting time from the two cities. The total distance covered by the Mecca-Medina high-speed railway is of 453km (449.2km of main line, plus a 3.75km branch connection to King Abdulaziz International Airport, where the fifth station is located). The electrified line will allow trains to travel at 320km/h, thus covering the track in approximately 2.5 hours: two hours from Medina to Jeddah and an additional 30 minutes to reach Mecca.

Spanish company Talgo will supply 36 Talgo 350 13-cars train sets: 35 of them will operate passenger service while the other one is a VIP Dual (hybrid) with a maximum capacity of 30 people and destined for exclusive use by the Saudi royal family. Bombardier has subcontracts worth €281 million to provide railway trucks and propulsion that, along with the four stations, have been designed to weather sandstorms and desert temperatures that during the same year vary from 0° C to more than 50°C.

About 20 million people are expected to visit Mecca and Medina in 2015, with that figure increasing on a yearly basis. The number of pilgrims performing Hajj or Umrah, as well as visitors and residents traveling to the cities, is in constant growth and the HHR intercity project is considered a priority as it will address that traffic of people providing them with a convenient, efficient, and comfortable service.

The railway line also represents a fast and safe alternative to the congested roads between the cities and will reduce the pollution caused by vehicle exhausts, thus having a positive impact on the environment.
Once the line is completed, two trains will link Mecca and Medina every day. Other trains will serve smaller parts of the track to Jeddah and KAEC, it all summing up to a total daily capacity of 160,000 passengers and more than 50 million per year. A special service pattern will be in place during the annual season of Hajj in order to accommodate more than 3 million pilgrims.

The HHR is one of the most emblematic projects included in Saudi Railway Organization's plan to expand the national railway network. The Land Bridge Project will link the port cities of Dammam in the East with Jeddah in the West passing through Riyadh for a total length of 950km and the North-South line will connect the north-western region with the capital of the Kingdom.