Saudi Railway Company (SAR) plans to invite contractors to prequalify for the construction of its 958-kilometre-long Saudi Landbridge project in the first half of 2015.

“We have not started the prequalification [for contractors],” said Bashar al-Malik, projects director at SAR, speaking at MEED’s Mena Rail & Metro Summit in Dubai on 21 October.

“Between the first and the second quarter of next year, we will start the prequalification, and international and local contractors can then start forming consortiums.”

The construction packages are expected to be tendered in late 2015 or early 2016, once 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. “It will be divided into packages – at least four contracts,” said Al-Malik. “In this project, buildings, especially the stations, will be part of the contracts.”

The most challenging part of the construction work is the 271km of line leading east out of Jeddah, which crosses the Hijaz mountains. “The area close to Jeddah is mountainous,” said Al-Malik. “There will be some tunnels, no doubt.”

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.

“The line links Jeddah and Riyadh and passes other major cities, and we have started discussions with and how to integrate their plans,” said Al-Malik. “The plan is to link to Taif, but it is not confirmed yet, the same for Mecca and there is a metro planned there also. And, of course, there is the SRO [Saudi Rail Organisation’s North-South Line].”

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

SAR is currently evaluating prequalification documents from consultants to supervise the construction work.

In 2013, SAR awarded Italian state railway group Italferr a $24m contract 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.

“Trust me, there is no solution [to sand on the tracks],” said Al-Malik. “If anyone tells you they can solve it, they are lying. There is no magical solution, you can reduce it, that is all.”

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.

The much-anticipated Landbridge project was initially launched in 2005, but has faced several delays related to financing. Originally, the scheme was planned as a 50-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) scheme financed through debt. In August 2009, however, the Saudi government decided to fund the railway on its own through the state-owned Public Investment Fund (PIF) after it struggled to raise funding from private banks.

In October 2011, the PIF announced it would take control of the development of the scheme and appointed SAR to construct the railway.