Pieces of track are coming together that will eventually form a network between the Gulf and the North Atlantic. But due to organisational problems in Saudi Arabia, the central stop, its completion may be a good way down the line. Foreign Correspondent Digby Lidstone reports The imperial government of Germany dreamed of a rail network stretching from Berlin to Basra in southern Iraq; a project that was cut short by the First World War.
But in the not too distant future, travellers with time on their hands could be making the journey from Abu Dhabi to London by rail. From the restoration of the old Hijaz railway in Jordan to plans for a GCC rail network, a host of schemes is under way that will eventually link the rail systems of Europe to the Gulf. At the heart of this revival of the railways is Saudi Arabia, where the government is pushing ahead with three vast rail schemes costing an estimated US$25 billion (Dh91.82bn).
The centrepiece is the Saudi Landbridge project, which will connect the east and west coasts of the kingdom, slicing across the Arabian Peninsula. Joining the Landbridge are two projects of equally ambitious scope. When completed, the Haramain rail scheme will carry as many as 10,000 passengers an hour between the Red Sea port of Jeddah and the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina. The north-south minerals railway, meanwhile, will involve building 2,400km of track, linking phosphate and bauxite mines in the north-west of Saudi Arabia to an industrial complex being built at Ras al Zour, on the Gulf coast. There, the raw materials will be processed into fertiliser and aluminium for export.
Such large projects entail considerable risks. "When you have a project that costs $1bn or more, the smallest change in your calculations can cost millions," says Nigel Harris, the managing director of the Railway Consultancy in the UK. "It is hardly surprising that these schemes have taken so long to build." Conceived in the 1990s, the Saudi rail programme poses a unique set of problems. The Landbridge and minerals railways are particularly challenging, in terms of engineering, as they cross a wide variety of terrain, from shifting sands to the mountains of the Hijaz region.
But the more vexing question for the Saudi authorities is how to fund them. A debate over financing has dogged the Landbridge scheme for years. It was conceived on a build-operate-transfer basis, which would involve private operators running the scheme under a 50-year deal financed mostly by debt. A consortium of local contractors was chosen in February to build the railway, but the development has since stalled.
Project sources say communications between the finance ministry, the regulatory body Saudi Railways Organisation and the teams set up to manage the project appear to have broken down recently. "We have absolutely no idea where the Landbridge is going. We have heard nothing for months," says a senior engineer close to the project. "The only thing we can do is wait." But progress on the Haramain and minerals rail schemes is moving ahead. Contracts worth more than $4bn have been awarded to a mix of Chinese, Saudi, US, French and Australian companies on the north-south scheme. The main civil works package has also been awarded on the Haramain high-speed railway to the Al-Rajhi Alliance, a Chinese and Saudi consortium.
Yet even these projects have not been entirely immune from delays. Bidding on the second phase of Haramain has been pushed back while the British architects Fosters & Partners draft designs for stations on the proposed railway link. The different pace of the three railway schemes is only to be expected, says Mr Harris. "Clients need to establish early on why they are building a railway," he says.
"Some railways make no sense in terms of pure profit and have very little attraction for private investors. But they may have considerable strategic benefits for the wider economy, from encouraging trade to linking regional economies or creating jobs." While the minerals railway may well attract private investment, the benefits of the Haramain and Landbridge schemes ultimately accrue to the central government.
The high-speed rail link from Jeddah will relieve congestion during the annual Haj pilgrimage, while the east-west railway is intended to encourage traffic between the main industrial areas on Saudi Arabia's Gulf and Red Sea coasts. The Landbridge will also enable shippers to avoid the long sea route through the Gulf of Aden, delivering cargo instead to ports such as Dubai and Dammam, to be delivered to western ports such as Jeddah for onward shipment to Europe.
"The benefits may seem obvious but the economics of these schemes can take decades to become clear," says Mr Harris. The minerals railway has been planned as a commercial project from the start and is moving ahead at a brisk pace in tandem with the industrial complex at Ras al Zour. When it is completed, the aluminium smelter will be the only such facility in the Gulf to source all of its raw materials locally, from bauxite to natural gas. The first phase of the rail project will open next year. The second, which involves building parallel freight and passenger lines north to Jordan, is due to be finished by 2012.
By then, work is expected to be well under way on a 1,500km GCC rail link, for which a feasibility study was approved in October. In May, a freight train completed a trip between the Syrian port of Tartous and the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr for the first time in 20 years. One link at a time, a rail network is taking shape that will one day join the North Atlantic to the Gulf. email@example.com