Peter Kenyon, TunnelTalk
Rail transportation chiefs in Saudi Arabia confirm the ambitious 1,065km Landbridge mega-project will be entering a construction procurement phase within the next few months. The combined freight and passenger link will see, for the first time, a rail connection across the Arabian peninsula from the busy international Red Sea port of Jeddah on the west coast, through to the Persian Gulf port of Dammam on the east coast via the capital city, Riyadh. Scope also includes construction of an additional 115km of new line to connect Dammam with Saudi Arabia's largest industrial city, the petrochemical port of Jubail. Peter Kenyon of TunnelTalk explores new developments on a project with a stop-start history that has been identified as requiring up to 28km of twin-running tunnels.
- For more than 20 years Saudi Arabia, a country with a relatively underdeveloped railway system, has dreamed of a connection that spans its busy eastern and western container ports – the so-called Landbridge that will allow coast-to-coast movement of millions of tonne of freight in a matter of 10 hours instead of the 5-7 days it currently takes via ship.
Saudi rail network, including planned Landbridge
- In fact, feasibility studies and a provisional alignment have already been completed by US engineering, design and transportation planning consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) as part of a project brief in the late 1990s to look at the entire rail infrastructure of the Kingdom. The then-client, the Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO), got as far as selecting in 2008 a consortium that would deliver the Landbridge element on a Build Operate Transfer procurement model. This followed a protracted series of prequalification and bidding rounds that involved competing civil engineering companies including Bouygues (France), Engeocom (Russia), Mitsui (Japan), OHL (Spain), SNC Lavalin (Canada) and Samsung (Korea), as well as numerous international consultants and locally based construction companies.
- It all came to nothing - SRO could not agree financial close with the winning Tarabot consortium, whose tunnel contractor would have been OHL of Spain. Contractural matters surrounding the Client's conflict of interest as owner of the existing 450km stretch of railway between Riyadh and Dammam that was to be upgraded and also form part of the Landbridge 50-year concessionary project, proved too difficult to overcome. After 2010 the project went into relative hibernation.
- But now, following a reorganisation of the Saudi rail regulatory authorities, there is a new project owner - the Saudi Railway Company (SAR), itself a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund. The project, it seems, is very much back on: this time with a new and simplified design-build model for the heavy construction and tunnel elements, and this time with public funding that is already committed. At the same time, two other long-distance rail transportation projects (the 450km Medinah-Mecca high speed railway and the 1,500km north-south mineral rail link) are well advanced, all of which has served to restore confidence in the Saudis’ ability to deliver mega rail projects.
SAR Project Director Hamad Al-Yousef at Middle East Rail Conference
- "The Saudi Landbridge is our next biggest project," said Hamad Al-Yousef, Civil and Track Projects Director at SAR. "It is going to be double track and will service mineral transport, passenger transport and general freight. It has been estimated that the design would take a year or so, so half way through this process we will be starting prequalifying contractors."
- Asked whether international contractors could have confidence that a competitive prequalification process would result in contract awards this time around, Al-Yousef said: "The Landbridge came to SAR [from SRO]. Previously it wasn't with SAR, but it came to us last year. We have acted upon it; we have appointed management consultants and designers. We think we can launch this project soon."
- He added: "I think the project is crucial. Why was it not launched 10 years ago, or 12 years ago, or 13 years ago, or even 20 years ago? I don't think this is the story. The story is we are building this railway now."
- To this effect, Italferr, the engineering subsidiary of Italian State Railways, is awarded a US$37 million 14-month contract to design the technical rail aspects of the Landbridge (a task previously undertaken by SNCF International) while Fluor has been awarded an eight-year US$72 million project management contract to oversee design and construction of the link. PB, which has been involved with the project since 1997 and produced a technical and alignment study in 2005, has been engaged to work alongside Fluor to review its original design and support the development of complex heavy civil engineering structures, including up to 28km of tunnels.
Mountain approach to Jeddah requires 28km of tunnels
- "Parsons Brinckerhoff previously prepared the Environment Study - Impact Assessment Report - a high-level study of the potential environmental impacts of the construction and subsequent operation of the Landbridge," explained Arash Aghdam, PB Director of Infrastructure for the Middle East-North Africa region. "The technical study assessed realignments of existing track that would be necessary to permit travel speeds up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) per hour. It also included topographical mapping and aerial surveys; assessment of structure and tunnelling requirements; and review of geotechnical, hydrological, and environmental data."
- "After years of discussion and false starts, plans for the Landbridge have finally taken root," he added. "Parsons Brinckerhoff - in association with Fluor - are now leading the program management consultancy to oversee the design and implementation of the project that is currently under way. It is now expected to cost US$7-10 billion, and the client, Saudi Railway Company [SAR], is targeting completion by 2020."
- The focus of PB's work will be around Jeddah, where land issues and geography require the link to run underground. The Saudi container port, along with much of the east coast of the country, sits on a narrow plain that is separated from the rest of the country by the Hejaz and Asir mountain ranges. A convenient route between the lower lying confluence of the two ranges is possible just north of Mecca, but even here the approach to the 600m (1,900ft) elevation point is very steep from the eastern (Jeddah) side, where population density is higher. Once the elevation is reached, however, the gradient back down towards the desert plateau, and on to Riyadh, presents fewer technical challenges.
Landbridge connects to west coast Haramain high speed rail line
- At the launch of the previous prequalification process in 2005, when the project was envisioned as a 50-year BOT concession, the now-defunct SRO retained the international arm of French rail operator SNCF as its technical consultant. At a Project Day in London, SNCF Project Manager Guy Trocellier revealed that the route would include 28km of tunnels through the hills to the east of Jeddah, 100 bridges and 20km long dynamic passing loops every 50km to enable both slower-moving freight trains and 250kph passenger trains to use the track.
- It is understood that this basic design is retained, although PB would only confirm this week that that the alignment includes "a significant amount of tunnelling and earthworks", as well as “several civil and track contracts, and at least one design build civil and track works contract in the vicinity of Jeddah."
- What makes the project more viable now from a passenger, as well as a freight link point of view, is that connection of the Landbridge with the under-construction high-speed rail link station at Jeddah, service on which is scheduled to start in 2014, will give pilgrims from the western coast of the country public transport access to Islam's holiest mosque in Mecca.
Riyadh metro moves to construction - TunnelTalk, July 2013
Finding a formula for delivering high speed rail in Brazil - TunnelTalk, February 2013
Crossing the Himalayas by rail - TunnelTalk, May 2012
Extreme tunnel planned for Andes base link - TunnelTalk, November 2012
New tunnel added to UK high speed rail scope - TunnelTalk, May 2013
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