Ask most Westerners about Saudi Arabia and they will likely tell you that it is an oil rich country in the Middle East that is mostly arid desert land with a few big cities. Some might even reference the passion for the Kingdom’s football team or the marvel of industrial cities that have been built from the ground up and highlighted in engineering publications and documentaries.
Now, one has cause to believe that any future description of the Kingdom will include thoughts of a country with one of the most sophisticated rail networks in the world.
A recent article in the Arab News by Siraj Wahab takes an in-depth look at the infrastructure improvements being made to the current rail system in Saudi Arabia as well as the new projects underway that will connect eight of the Kingdom’s 13 provinces via a vast network of high-speed lines and a system of tunnels and land bridges by 2015.
|(Riyadh) Rail will soon connect the Kingdom.|
There are currently five phases of construction on the new network that comprise 7,000 km of track, or about three and two-thirds more track than the current system. The Kingdom’s current system is about 1,500 km long and runs between Riyadh and Dammam on two lines; one for passengers and one for freight. Highlights include: the Haramain High Speed Rail project that will connect Makkah, Jeddah, Rabigh and Madinah and includes more than 500 tunnels; an expansive land bridge slated to connect the existing network with industrial and business centres across the country; incorporation of a recently completed private line; and a phase called the Gulf Cooperation Council Railway Project that will link Kuwait to Ras Al-Khair, Oman and Qatar.
If that’s not enough, the Kingdom is not ruling out the possibility of future lines that connect all of the provinces and even a line that connects to the European network one day.
Aziz M. Al-Hokail, president of the Saudi Railways Organization (SRO), explains the benefits of expansion and the reasons the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah approved the massive spend. Al-Hokail references how rail projects have helped interconnect economies in other countries, spurred growth in the form of cities popping up along the lines and the benefits to both commuters and logistics improvements.
He mentions that one need only look at the US or Taiwan as evidence of the benefits that rail has on an economy. There were once vast expanses of empty land along the rail lines in both countries. Now industrial hubs and suburban areas have grown out of seemingly nowhere, much like towns did along rivers in ancient times. A shipment that once took a week by sea will be made in 12 hours via the new high speed rail network, boosting trade in the country as well.
On all levels, rail in Saudi Arabia looks like a no-brainer. High-speed lines look to diversify an already robust nation and economy. Soon, private shops and consumer-based micro economies may pop up between industrial cities and grow as well.
With all of the debate around the rest of the world and bickering between politicians and experts about the benefits of rail versus the costs involved, one might be tempted to look at what the Saudi’s are doing and say the time for talk is over. The jobs it creates, enhancements to trade and quality of life of those around a line, not to mention the cost efficiencies once complete, all make rail a viable option. Some say the current rail project might be late in coming to the Kingdom given the advanced networks around the world. Despite the seemingly late entry into modernization movement, the same people might also be saying that come 2015, Saudi Arabia may be the very model for modernization, thanks to rail. Perhaps it will be a lesson for us all.