October 23, 2020

The Saudis boast of the desert train | Economy

The Saudis boast of the desert train | Economy

The imposing railway station of Yedda, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, announces the train before arriving. The train is the Haramain, literally Two Sanctuaries, in reference to the mosques of Mecca and Medina, the holy cities of Islam that unites the first high speed of the Arabian Peninsula. Once inside, there are still workers finishing the building designed by Norman Foster and some elevators and escalators still do not work. But as with the part of civil works that has been delayed, this has not prevented the Spanish-Saudi consortium responsible for the second phase of the project from starting it. "We are very proud," says Mohammad A. Feda, the general director of Haramain, the AVE del Desierto.

Pride for infrastructure is not just a matter for the authorities or the companies involved. The users give testimony of this with an average occupation of 80% in the first four months of service. Before entering the train, there are many who stand before the elongated nose of Talgo T-350 to get selfies and family photos. The pilgrims arriving from all corners of the Islamic world, and who constitute a large part of the passage, will take home an image of modernity and development that Saudi Arabia intends to project, beyond the traditional guardian of the holy places of the Islam. For the Saudis, who for years have complained about the precariousness of facilities and services, it is, in addition to satisfaction, a change of culture.

"Do not see what punctuality," commented Mustafa impressed in Riyadh, in an implicit allusion to the national vice of being late. He and his wife had just returned from the umra (minor pilgrimage) and had made the complete journey from Mecca to Medina, 450 kilometers, in three hours compared to four and a half to five by road. "We received impeccable service", both agree. The most surprising thing for them was that the staff, both in the station and in the trains, be Saudi, another key factor in the reforms promoted by Prince Mohamed Bin Salmán, heir and strong man of the country.

And, in effect, the convoy starts 10 seconds before the clock reaches 12.46 for the departure from Yedda to Medina. Such rigor is possible because, since 20 minutes before, a small army of stewardesses and hostesses has directed the travelers towards the platform. Security control, similar to that of airports, separates women and men for electronic frisking. The train, however, does not segregate. The 13 wagons, with a total of 417 seats distributed between economic and preferential classes, are mixed, in line with the new winds that blow in Saudi Arabia, until now one of the countries with the highest gender inequality in the world.

This correspondent would have liked to travel to Mecca, but the station is within the exclusive area for Muslims. When acquiring the tickets it is necessary to facilitate the documentation, which already puts on notice about the religion of each one. Although they can be purchased at the box office, it is convenient to do it in advance on the Internet due to the high demand. The trip made by EL PAÍS, courtesy of the Consortium, costs 441 Saudi Riyals (110 euros) round trip, VAT included, in preferred class, and 262.50 (65.41 euros) in economic.

Trained by Renfe

Inside, the emblem of Talgo stamped in the access corridors and the similarity with the AVE Madrid-Valencia make it familiar. It's the details that make the difference. As soon as they start, the same uniformed youths who have welcomed the door offer Arabic coffee and dates, with exquisite manners and white gloves.

A steward serves coffee to a passenger in the Medina-Mecca AVE.
A steward serves coffee to a passenger in the Medina-Mecca AVE.

"Yes, we have been trained by Renfe", responds an intervenor that bears the name of the Spanish company on the identification tape. In the cafeteria, two other women, Yaqeen and Latifa, who prefer not to say their age, but young as the rest of the staff, cater to those who ask for tea, sodas or sandwiches. The majority of those hired for services on board and at stations are under 30 years old and 35% are women, although no machinist. However, her presence behind the bar is a revolution in a country where, until the beginning of this 21st century, the Saudis could only work in health and education for women.

The end of boom of oil and the increase of population have forced to rethink the waste that supposes to have in house to the feminine half, often more formed than the men, while it depends on the immigrant workforce. One third of the 33 million inhabitants of the country are foreigners, who cover 90% of the positions in the private sector. With a strike of 12.9% (40% among young people), giving work to the 400,000 Saudis who enter the labor market each year is a real challenge. But in addition, it is necessary to overcome the prejudices towards manual labor and the services of those who until now have been occupied by foreigners.

"We are very happy to be here," declares Yaqeen. However, neither she nor Latifa want to appear in the photos after the bar. Her colleagues, Ahmed, Ali and Mohamed, do not care, however, that the photographer captures them serving coffee, a ritual that they have probably done a thousand times in their homes, where children used to attend to their parents' visitors. Avoid exposing women. Both of them have been working together for six months, in addition to the previous six weeks of training, and they are seen as a team.

Experience and know-how

Feda, the Saudi director of Haramain, recognizes the importance of cooperation. "From the Spaniards we have gained experience and know-how", summarizes in the project offices. "The train is a qualitative leap because Saudi Arabia did not have high speed, but it also contributes to the mobility of women," says Jorge Segrelles, the president of the Council of the Spanish High Speed ​​Mecca Medina Consortium, by telephone from Madrid. .

An employee attends passengers at the Yedah station.
An employee attends passengers at the Yedah station.

Areej, a sanitary supervisor, and her daughters Yara and Lara are a good example. They return to Medina after spending the weekend in Yedda with relatives. "We had used the railway in Europe during the holidays, but never in Saudi Arabia, we loved the experience," sums up Yara. "Even now that we can drive, it's safer and faster than traveling by car."

The convoy slows down when arriving at the station of KAEC, abbreviations in English of the Economic City King Abdalá, one of the five megaprojects of development sent by the previous monarch and that did not complete of being completed. On this trip it does not stop.

The challenge of the desert

When leaving, a spectacular desert area begins to be seen but whose sand, added to winds that reach over 100 kilometers per hour, has been one of the biggest challenges for construction companies. From a special design of the joints to maintain the required level of dust tightness, to glass reinforced with a protective film to prevent scratching, through the anti-abrasion paint or the 80 kilometers of track on the plate (compared to the usual ballast), everything has been a custom work for the special climatic conditions of the area.

"The heat, the sand and the wind", responds Álvaro Senador-Gómez, the general director of the Spanish consortium, when asked about the main challenges that have been addressed during the construction of the superstructure and systems. All this, and the coordination of a dozen companies, which has caused more than one friction. But that is already the past. Now, once inaugurated by King Salmán last September, those responsible look to the future, to the operation and maintenance, which extend to the next 12 years.

The first test of fire will be the Hajj, the great pilgrimage to Mecca attended by two to three million faithful and this year falls at the beginning of August. But the flood of visitors will start from Ramadan (May 7 to June 4). Not everyone will take the AVE of the Desert to make the journey from Mecca to Medina as required by the ritual, but the demand will increase substantially. Managers expect to increase services, which are currently limited to four daily trains in each direction, five days a week. Mondays and Tuesdays are still working on auctions, drains and landfills outside the route, something that the concession companies (outside the Spanish consortium) should conclude shortly, as well as the three stations that are still under construction. Only then will it be possible to reach the speed of 300 kilometers per hour announced by the Haramain trade brochures.

Travelers leave the train after arriving in Medina.
Travelers leave the train after arriving in Medina.

At the moment, an orchard of palm trees announces that the train is arriving at the station of Medina, one of the two already finished. In attention to older travelers or those with mobility difficulties, several young people wait at the doors with wheelchairs. The newcomers take pictures again next to the duck pick of the machine. A couple of security managers watch that nobody gets too close to the edge of the platform and can fall to the tracks. There is also a brigade of cleaners ready to return the convoy impeccable. These are no longer Saudis but immigrants from the Indian subcontinent.

Milestones of a pharaonic project

The route. The railway covers the route between the two most holy cities of Islam: Mecca, where the Prophet Muhammad was born, and Medina, where he died. A total of 450 kilometers, which is covered in three hours (two hours and 11 minutes when it is at full capacity).

The project. At the end of 2011, the Al Shoula Group consortium, made up of 12 Spanish companies (the public Adif, Renfe and Ineco and the private Indra, OHL, Consultrans, Copasa, Imathia, Cobra, Dimetronic, Inabensa and Talgo) were awarded the project, budgeted at 6,736 million euros.

Problems. The coordination between the consortium companies, two of which were Saudi and had a very different business culture, as well as with the authorities, has been a constant source of disagreements and conflicts. In addition, the challenges posed by the desert (winds, extreme temperatures, movements of the dunes …) have complicated the works. For example, in the most sandy areas, the track had to be laid on a concrete slab, something much more expensive than the usual ballast (stones), and to build walls to stop the dunes.

Delays. Initially, the first train should have left the station in December 2016. The first full itinerary Medina-Mecca in passage tests was made on December 31, 2017. The official inauguration, with King Salman and his son, the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman on board, took place on September 25, 2018. A few days later, on October 11, began operating commercially, although with limitations.

The extra costs. The project was awarded for 6,736 million euros, but the delays and difficulties brought the final cost to 7,100 million euros.

The train. The model that covers the line is the Talgo 350 (nicknamed the duck, by the nose), with specific technologies for the area. The Spanish company has already manufactured the fleet of 35 reinforced trains with the so-called pack of the desert.


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