Traveling by high-speed rail to Mecca

A Spanish-Saudi Arabian consortium is building a 444-kilometre-long high-speed rail line to connect the two Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca. The first trains will be delivered later this year. Heinz Krieger reports from Madrid.


Saudia Arabia is allocating 375 billion dollars from 2010-2015 towards improving its infrastructure, health care system and educational institutions. A more-than-considerable sum of money that companies the world over are interested in profiting from.

In steps Spain. Now abdicated, King Juan Carlos travelled three times to the Middle Eastern economic power and largest oil producer in the world, accompanied each time by a strong delegation of Spanish companies. Numerous orders and contracts were signed in the desolate desert region, the highlight of which is the high-speed rail line between the pilgrimage cities of Medina and Mecca.

AVE for the desert

The high-speed rail project was awarded to the Al Shoula consortium in October 2011, beating out a counter-offer from France’s Alstom. The consortium, consisting of 12 Spanish companies and two Saudi Arabian ones, has a lot to celebrate with a total contract value of 6.74 billion euro. But they also have a lot to deliver: They have to build more than 400 kilometres of railway, deliver parts for 36 trains that can travel across the desert at 320 kilometres per hour and build five train stations.

But the Spaniards have an advantage: They can model this project after their successful AVE high-speed train, which runs through most of Europe. And for now at least, the project is moving forward concretely. As Mohamed al Suiket, head of the Saudi Railways Organization, said after his recent visit to Spain, the first trains are set to be delivered later this year, reports the Saudi newspaper Al Iqtisadiya.

From Medina to Mecca in 2.5 hours

The so-called “pilgrim train” will be able to cover the distance between the two Muslim holy cities in just two hours and thirty minutes. The project calls for five train stations to be built, including one in Jeddah and another in King Abdullah Economic City. Constructed is scheduled to be completed by December 2016.

At present, twelve of the trains are being built with two motor coaches each. Field tests on both the routes and the trains will begin in the first quarter of 2015 in the heart of the Arabian desert, reports the Spanish business newspaper Expansión, running 130 kilometres from Medina to King Abdullah Economic City.

Challenging construction conditions

“The project consists of six separate sections, which are being built by three consortiums,” explained Pablo Vazquez, President of Ineco, one of the participating companies. A Chinese-Saudi consortium is responsible for preparing the lines and track foundations, a Saudi one is building the railway stations, and the Spanish-Saudi consortium is constructing the railway lines, rail crossings and telecommunication system and also supplying the trains.

But the work has been complicated – and therefore delayed – by very nature of the project. It is a massive undertaking in a remote and inhospitable desert, with an extreme range of temperatures (from freezing at night to more than 50 degrees Celsius during the day) built on slowly – and sometimes suddenly – shifting sand dunes. “Due to the strong movements of sand, some of our materials had to be replaced with more durable ones,” added Vazquez.

Riyadh and Doha get Spanish transport

Spanish companies are already working on other public transport projects elsewhere in the Middle East. But unlike the Hamrain High-Speed Rail project (Hamrain means “two holy places” in Arabic), these other projects are in more urban settings, such as the subway systems that FCC is building in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

It’s clear from this international focus that the stakes are high for Spain. If these projects succeed, then they could put Spain on the map as the international expert in rail technology, a move that would get cars of the roads while also offering Spain a way out of its economic crisis.


Photo credit: Al Jazeera English, flickr/Creative Commons

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