How do you drill a rail tunnel through lava? No, it’s not a metaphor or an idea concocted by some sociopathic Bond villain, it’s a genuine challenge that engineers delivering a new metro system in the Saudi Arabian city of Madinah will have to face.

Madinah has a growing population. Within the next few decades, the number of people living in the city will double and each year millions travel to the Al Madinah region to visit its religious sites. It is Saudi Arabia’s second-holiest city, behind Mecca, and yet it has no public transport system, just a congested road network.

The Madinah Metro was approved as part of the city’s public transport master plan in 2014. The system will consist of 92.7 kilometres of new to that the difficulties of introducing a non-muslim workforce to such a devout area and the possibility of discovering historic Islamic sites during the metro’s construction.

It’s not the only metro system being planned or built in the Middle East – it’s not even the only one being built in that part of Saudi Arabia. Mecca is hoping to add to its existing Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro with another system in 2019 and, further east, Riyadh plans to open its six-line metro railway, 71 new stations and a connection to the Haramain high-speed rail network. However, the Harrat Rahat lava field will make boring the railway’s 25 kilometres of tunnel a particularly complicated challenge. Add system around the same time. Across the rest of the region there is Doha Metro, which is set to be completed by 2018, and Abu Dhabi Metro, which is scheduled to open in 2021.

The Madinah Metro, which was the subject of talks by CH2M Hill’s global rail director, Mark Loader, and Mamdouh M Tarabishi, public transport programme chief executive, Al Madinah Al Munawarah Development Authority, was just one of many projects discussed in March during Middle East Rail 2015.

The exhibition and conference was once again hosted at the Dubai World Trade Centre. Dubai is a city which has already embraced rail, developing the Middle East’s first automated metro and the world’s first light rail system to run solely on a ground-level power supply.

Middle East Rail brings together transport authorities from around the Gulf states, and naturally much of the focus and naturally much of the focus falls on the creation of the GCC railway – a 2,117-kilometre railway which begins in Kuwait before following the Persian Gulf coast down through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman. Each state is responsible for planning, financing and building its own part of the network, but on the opening day of this year’s event, HE Rihan Al Fayez, chief of the economic department, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, said a study will be finalised this year into the creation of a new authority which will oversee the development of the GCC rail network.

Middle East Rail [online]

Growing in importance

The project will celebrate a milestone this year in the UAE with the start of operations on the first phase of the country’s national rail network. In the next few years, the second phase of the Etihad Rail project will add another 628 kilometres of railway, stretching out to the Saudi and Omani borders. HE Dr Abdulla Belhaif Al Nuaimi, Minister of Public Works and chairman of the Federal Transport Authority – Land & Maritime, Ministry of Public Works, UAE, who officially opened the ninth annual Middle East Rail conference, said the role of the railway was gradually growing in importance in the Gulf region.

The show, which purports to be the largest of its kind in the region, was an opportunity for business and government leaders to discuss the challenges the Middle East faces in attempting to commission so many complete railway systems in such a short period of time. Speakers at the conference considered the need for the harmonisation of technical and safety standards across the Gulf states, and looked to learn lessons from international partners such as London Underground.

On the eve of the exhibition, Talgo announced that it had been awarded a contract by the Saudi Railways Organization (SRO) for six new 350 series high-speed trains. The new units, which will be almost identical to those the Spanish manufacturer is supplying for the Haramain high-speed line between Mecca and Madinah, will operate between Riyadh and Dammam. The diesel trains will operate at speeds of 200 km/h and cut journey times along the route. Like the Haramain trains, the new units will include coatings and films designed to keep out sand and protection from the desert heat.

Also among the rolling stock manufacturers showcasing their involvement in the Middle East region were Bombardier and CAF. CAF is currently coming to the end of production of a fleet of new trains for Saudi Arabia’s North-South railway.

Bombardier’s focus in the region is primarily on complete light rail systems. The manufacturer is currently testing a 1.3-kilometre people mover system at Dubai International Airport and plans to deliver a similar system for King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. Another ongoing project is the King Abdullah Financial District monorail – a 3.6-kilometre system being built for what will be a brand new area of the city.

Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc


Day two focussed on the future, headlined by chief executive officer of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Dirk Ahlborn. Hyperloop, which was first mooted by Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, is a solar-powered high-speed evacuated tube transportation system. Picked up by Ahlborn and his crowdfunding platform JumpStartFund, the project now has engineers and academics around the world contributing ideas and research in their spare time for free in an attempt to get the concept off the ground.

Ahlborn said he was receiving five applications a day by people who want to be involved in the project. Their efforts have already proven successful as the developer of the Quay Valley solar-powered city in California plans to build a Hyperloop system for its residents.

Around 6,000 people attended Middle East Rail 2015 by the time the doors closed on the final day. Much is written about the scale of investment in the region and yet, to an outsider, the progress has appeared slow. But now there are spades in the ground on several major projects. Riyadh Metro is well underway, the Haramain high-speed railway will soon begin testing its new trains and Etihad Rail has completed the first phase of the UAE’s national railway.

A region that has relied on importing international expertise is now establishing training programmes to develop domestic talent. The industry is no longer just gasping at the level of investment being committed to projects in the Middle East, it is starting to see world-class railways being built.