Bids for two major civils contracts on the first phase of a new metro network planned for Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca are currently under evaluation, with an award expected in late summer.

The scheme, which is part of the wider Mecca Public Transport Programme (MPTP), will be built over the next decade, resulting in a total of 123.5 kilometres of light rail over four lines with 66 stations.

Promoted by Mecca Mass Rail Transit Company (MMRTC) on behalf of the Development Commission for Mecca and Medina, the system will sit alongside a new bus rapid transit network and four major roads. It will also connect with the Haramain high-speed railway that will link Mecca with Medina.

Severe congestion

Such investments are important developments for the congested city of Mecca, which every year receives 3.5 million visitors to perform the week-long pilgrimage of hajj. A further 5 million visitors also arrive throughout the year to perform umrah.

With limited public transport options, pilgrims rely on buses, meaning roads are congested and air pollution is a major concern. Pedestrians mix with motorised traffic, causing safety problems, and ambulances and medical professionals are constantly on standby to help those suffering from heat exhaustion.

There have been improvements. In November 2010, the kingdom opened its first ever metro line specifically to serve the hajj pilgrims. Running from Arafat at its southern point through Muzdalifah and on to Mina, the 18km Al-Mashaaer al-Mugaddassah line can carry 72,000 passengers an hour, with the 12 car trains each able to hold 4,000 people.

Stick to commitments and promises. That will generate trust. Don’t commit to something that you can’t control

Ralf Boernicke, Siemens

Perhaps the most impressive aspect about the metro, known locally as the Al-Mashaaer Line, is the speed at which it was built. From contract signing in February 2009 to operation took just 21 months and this incredible achievement is often overlooked, with more attention paid to the cost overruns that were incurred by the main contractor, China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC).

Construction costs for the $1.8bn contract escalated to more than $2.4bn, with CRCC blaming changes to the scope of the work.

“During construction, as the actual work quantities increased significantly compared with the estimated figures at the time of signing of the contract, the management of the company expected the project to incur substantial losses,” said CRCC in its annual results for 2010. The results concluded that the final losses were RMB4.2bn ($677m).

Key fact

No metro has been built faster than the Al-Mashaaer Line,which caters to hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia

Source: MEED

But even though costs were escalating and the civil works were running behind schedule, CRCC maintained its commitment to delivering the project, flooding the scheme with resources. Between 20,000 and 30,000 men were estimated to have been working around the clock to ensure the firm’s commitment to delivery was honoured. At the same time, its China-based parent company, China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCCG), was prepared to provide a financial bailout, eventually transferring RMB2.1bn to its subsidiary.

Driven by the determined client, the Ministry for Municipalities & Rural Affairs (Momra), the entire supply chain pulled together to meet the November 2010 deadline in difficult circumstances. “By August 2010, scarcely anybody believed we would get the entire line into service before hajj,” says Ralf Boernicke, project manager for the electrification provider, Germany’s Siemens.

“Everybody was thinking it was not possible, but we did not accept this. We kept the pressure high and demonstrated that we were cooperating and doing everything we could.”

Unconventional methods

For Siemens and other contractors, meeting the seemingly impossible deadline meant doing things differently.

“We had to use site access in a different way. Normally, we do cable-laying and overhead line construction systematically from point A at one end towards point Z at the other by getting access granted continually from the main contractor. But that was not possible here, so we had to jump between sections as access was available,” says Boernicke, explaining that Siemens’ start date too was delayed by three months as access to infrastructure and electrical rooms was not yet ready.

Mecca metro phases
Phase Alignment Length (km) Stations  Duration (years)
1 Line B (11.9km and 7 stations) Line C (33.2km and 15 stations) 45.1 22 3
2 Line A 27.7 18 5
3 Line D and Extension of Line C 35.2 19 2
Total 123.5 66 10
km=Kilometres. Source: MMRTC

Construction methods also had to be changed to accommodate the handovers that were out of sequence. “We needed to jump with our technical machinery from one section to the next, sometimes not using the rail-mounted equipment but using heavy cranes instead,” says Boernicke. “We also ordered additional equipment and teams to accelerate and mitigate the delays. At peak time, we had up to 800 people for our scope of work.”

The rail systems consultant, mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) designer and civil work verification consultant for the scheme was the UK’s Atkins. It also faced interesting challenges on the project, such as the need to integrate the European systems including Thales signalling, Siemens power supply and Westinghouse screen doors with the Chinese rolling stock.

“It was far from being straightforward,” says Julian Hill, regional director for rail at Atkins. “There was a massive amount of work. Decision-makers from all the consultants – ourselves, [France’s] Systra who did structural design and [Lebanon’s] Khatib & Alami who did the architecture designs – co-located into Jeddah and these teams then moved on to site later so that they could resolve issues quickly.”

Information modelling

Hill says the introduction of building information modelling (BIM), which allowed the creation of a 3D model that integrated all of the design elements, was critical in enabling the project to meet the tight timescale. “At the time, BIM was relatively new. We had used it on the Green Line for the Dubai Metro, so we had the capability to take it forward onto the Al-Mashaaer [line],” he says, explaining that all of the design information from all of the parties was entered into the model to ensure the plans were integrated and buildable. “It was used as a construction tool to coordinate and integrate the designs, and to prevent any clashes on site. It enabled the contractor to have more certainty on the programme, which was extremely aggressive.”

By September 2010, the hajj deadline was looming and it required all hands on deck to complete the last 2km, with every possible construction activity seemingly being carried out simultaneously.

In the end, CRCC managed to get the line open with three of the stations operational, one at either end of the line and one at Muzdalifah. All nine stations were opened in time for hajj in 2011 and CRCC has successfully carried out its operation and maintenance responsibilities for the past three years, with 2014 being the final year under the original contract.

For those involved in the record-breaking scheme, MEED understands that no metro has been built faster. There were many challenges to overcome and lessons learned.

“The most difficult challenge was to fulfil the expectation of our client, which was CRCC, and the final client, which was Momra. That was a very interesting experience,” says Boernicke, explaining that all parties would be brought together for progress meetings and pushed to justify why sections had not yet been electrified. Rather than blaming other parties for delays, the contractors pulled together to get the work completed.

Building strong relationships with all of the main parties is vital, says Boernicke, and is a key lesson for future phases. “You must know all the stakeholders’ interests and expectations, particularly those you have a close relationship with regarding your scope of work,” he says.

“Stick to commitments and promises. That will generate trust. Don’t commit to something that you can’t control. Sometimes it is very tough in a meeting to state that something cannot be achieved in the way stakeholders may require, but you must stay credible. Ask for stakeholders’ help; together you may find a solution.”

Learning lessons

Wise words then for those involved with phase one of the Mecca Metro, which will complement the Al-Mashaaer Line. Submissions from 10 consortiums bidding for two civils contracts are under evaluation. Line C is a 33.2km section involving tunnelling work and 15 stations. The Isolux Corsan/Haif Contracting/Kolin joint venture is the low bidder at SR9.95bn ($2.65bn). For the 11.9km Line B, which has seven stations, the Assignia/Alsaad/Mapa joint venture has bid low at SR3.56bn.

Interestingly, the bid values show a huge spread. The highest bid for Line B, for example, is SR7.97bn, more than double the lowest price, and with all of its local experience, CRCC prices the work at SR6.42bn, highlighting just how aggressive the low bidder’s tender is.

With Saudi Arabia entering a metro boom, there are many reasons why contractors might bid low to secure major contracts. But this can be a high-risk strategy. CRCC is still pursuing a compensation claim for the cost overruns with Momra. Future phases of the project will also face challenges; incoming contractors would do well to learn from previous experiences.