Local and international contractors are in discussions to form joint ventures and consortiums for construction work on the 958-kilometre-long Saudi Landbridge project.

Saudi Railway Company (SAR) said in October last year that it plans to invite contractors to prequalify in the first half of 2015.

The construction packages are expected to be tendered in late 2015 or early 2016, once the consortiums have been prequalified.

The civil and track work will be divided into a series of packages that will be for linear sections of line, together with associated buildings and stations. The most challenging part of the construction work is the 271km of line leading east out of Jeddah, which crosses the Hijaz mountains.

The line will connect Jeddah and Riyadh, but will also serve other cities in the Western Province, such as Mecca and Taif, and other transport networks.

There are two other major packages covering the systems and rolling stock. Both these contracts, like the civil and track work, have yet to be tendered.

In 2013, SAR awarded Italian state railway group Italferr a $24m deal for the design. Italferr is working with a local partner, Arabian Consulting Engineering Centre. Also in 2013, US firm Fluor won the project management consultancy contract for the rail project.

Once complete, the double-track line will serve both freight and passengers. Passenger trains will travel at 300 kilometres an hour (km/h) and freight trains will run at 160km/h.

Once operational, one of the major issues will be maintenance of the line and constantly clearing sand off the tracks in remote areas where the wind moves sand dunes across the desert. Several ways to mitigate the problem are being considered. These include building dykes or booms on either side on the line to prevent sand from getting on the track, planting vegetation along the length of the track and putting the track on viaducts above the dunes.