More than 100 local and international rail companies, contractors, equipment suppliers, shipping lines, port operators and financial institutions attended the landbridge project day, which was chaired by Transport Minister Jobarah al-Suraisry and presented by SRO and its advisory team, legal advisers Linklaters, in partnership with the Saudi Law Office of Abdulaziz H Fahad; technical adviser Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer International (SNCFI); and a consortium of National Commercial Bank and UBS Warburgas the financial advisers.

Under SRO’s updated schedule, prequalification on the build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme will now be launched by April, which will be followed by the release of tender documents to prequalified firms in the third quarter. Bids are due to be received by SRO in the first quarter of 2006, with the concession to be awarded in the third quarter.

The successful consortium will design, finance, build and operate a 950-kilometre line between Riyadh and Jeddah and an additional 115-kilometre connection between Dammam and Jubail, and integrate the new links with the existing two lines running between Riyadh and Dammam. The railway will also be closely integrated with Jeddah Islamic Port and King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam to ensure a smooth flow of container traffic, which will make up the bulk of all traffic on the landbridge.

According to SNCFI technical manager Guy Trocellier, the landbridge railway will consist of a single track. A second track may be added, depending on traffic growth. Rolling stock on the freight and passenger lines will be diesel-powered. The freight trains will operate at speeds of up to 120 kilometres an hour (km/h), while the passenger trains’ operating speed will be up to 220 km/h. The rail line will reduce freight journey time from today’s five-seven days by sea, without transhipment, to 18 hours. On the passenger side, a trip from Jeddah to Riyadh will take six hours rather than 10-12 hours by bus at present.

SRO president Khalid al-Yahya said that the government had agreed to provide the concessionaire with the land required for the route. SRO’s core assets and selected staff will be transferred to the newly formed concession company, which will be incorporated under Saudi law once approved by royal decree. It is expected that the government will take a stake in the operating company although the size of the shareholding has still to be determined. The length of the concession has also still to be agreed. A passenger concession will be tendered after the principal concession has been awarded.

In addition, the government is expected to establish an independent regulatory body to oversee the railway sector, regulate safety and competition and grant licences to rail operators.

A concession for a new 570-kilometre rail network in the west, which will link Jeddah, Mecca, Medina and Yanbu, will be tendered at a later stage.