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Shifting sands and 60 million pilgrims: The trials of building an Arabian railway

Group constructing high-speed Medina-Mecca train link is struggling with the desert conditions

Built by a Spanish-led team, the line needs to run every 10 minutes for 23 hours a day

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Spain’s King Juan Carlos (left) with Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia (far right). EFE

The Spanish-led consortium that in September 2011 won the €6.7-billion contract to build a high-speed rail link between Medina and Mecca has spent the last year studying satellite photographs in a bid to deal with the biggest challenge it faces: preventing Saudi Arabia’s ever-shifting sands from swallowing its track.

King Juan Carlos, who played a key role in helping Spain win the contract over a French-led group of companies, was in Saudi Arabia last weekend to hear what strategies Spanish engineers have come up with to deal with the ever-present sand.

The project is the biggest foreign contract ever awarded to a Spanish consortium, which will be responsible for operating and maintaining the high-speed line linking the two holy cities of Islam for seven years, a period that could be extended to 12.

The Saudis have said they will not pay overrun costs, which means that unless the Spanish consortium wants to lose money on the project, it must find a way to prevent sand from damaging the track and equipment.

Unless the consortium wants to lose money, it must find a way to prevent sand from damaging the track 

The first steps have been to build ditches alongside much of the track, and put up panels to create protected areas. Some stretches of the line will be laid not on ballast, but concrete. “This is called slab track, and we will have to remove the sand that collects on it every day,” say sources at the consortium. “It is easier to brush a cement slab clean of sand than it is to remove the stuff from between millions of tiny stones.”

The Spanish team has never built a railway through a desert before, and admits that maintaining the track will be costly, and not just because of the sand: “The region is hit by torrential rains from time to time, which can cause landslides, but we are confident that we can make money on this; after all, we’re not an NGO,” says a consortium spokesman.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to getting the trains running on time will come from the estimated 60 million passengers per year who will make the 450-kilometer journey between Mecca and Jeddah as they undertake the two Islamic pilgrimages, Hajj and Umrah. “We’re talking about a train leaving every 10 minutes with men and women separated, many of whom will not speak English or Arabic; Muslims from all over the world, some of them poor, who perhaps are abroad for the first time, and will be carrying huge amounts of luggage and won’t want to be separated from what is perhaps all they own in the world, which they may need to sell to make what will probably be the only journey in their lives: to Mecca,” says a source at the consortium. “And on the way back, they will want to bring huge water containers to share out in their village.” He points out that trains will run 23 hours a day, with just one hour for maintenance.

The consortium is also required to provide a train for the exclusive use of the Saudi royal family.

The trains will have to run 23 hours a day on the line, with just one hour for maintenance

The project is due to be completed by December 2016 and the contract includes penalties for any delays. The concept of an overrun is not understood in Saudi Arabia, says the consortium, although it has managed to include a 10 percent margin on the agreed price: “The Arabs want the best at the lowest cost.”

The tenth person to be arrested as part of a judicial investigation into allegations of embezzlement of public money during the construction of the Madrid-Barcelona AVE high-speed train route was an engineer working in Saudi Arabia when the scandal broke earlier this month. He has since been suspended. The consortium says the Saudi authorities have not brought the matter up. Neither have they mentioned the overrun costs run into by Spanish construction company Sacyr, which halted work on the expansion of the Panama Canal: “But they were quite concerned when it looked for a while that Spain might need to be bailed out by the EU and the IMF.”

The Spanish consortium says a Chinese company is laying the foundations for the track, and that it is not happy with the standard of work. “We have found many defects that we have had to correct.”

Having to work within the confines of Saudi Arabia’s strict interpretation of Islam has also proved a challenge, says the consortium: “Women are not allowed out in public unless accompanied by a male guardian, so it has been very difficult getting visas for our female staff.” Non-Muslims are not allowed into the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, so the consortium has had to teach Muslims to drive the trains. At the same time, it has also had to build makeshift mosques at its construction sites for a workforce that prays five times a day.