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Q&A with Khaled Alharbi, SAR: Saudi Arabia Railway’s growth plans

At InnoTrans 2022, Global Railway Review Editor, Craig Waters, sat down with Khaled Alharbi, Senior Vice President Operations at Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR), to find out more about SAR’s ambitious growth plans and strategic vision, and how rail is an enabler to transform the Kingdom into a leading global logistic hub.

SAR's Khaled Alharbi and GRR's Craig Waters

Craig Waters, Global Railway Review, with Khaled Alharbi, SAR, at InnoTrans 2022. Credit: SAR

Can you please tell me more about SAR’s growth plans for the Saudi Arabia railway sector?

Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR) is the national leader of railway development and operations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We were founded in 2006 by the Public Investment Fund with an aim to develop railway networks between the main cities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

We are now responsible for managing 4,500km of railway networks and our ambitious plan in the next five to seven years is to grow to 8,000km of railways, including the ‘Land Bridge’ project which will span more than 1,300km from East to West, connecting the Kingdom’s ports from the Arabian Gulf to the Red Sea for the first time, and allow for an annual capacity of over three million passengers and 50 million tonnes of freight. This is a huge jump in our railway infrastructure development, but our aspirations go above and beyond this.

We are now responsible for managing 4,500km of railway networks and our ambitious plan in the next five to seven years is to grow to 8,000km of railways…

Our network offers heavy-haul and passenger connectivity across the Kingdom, from the North Train Network, the East Train Network, also the Haramain High Speed Rail (HHR) which is one of the world’s 10 fastest trains and connects the two most holy cities, Makkah al-Mukarramh (Mecca) and al- Madinah al-Munawwarah (Medina).

Railway transportation in our country is viewed as one of the central pillars of economic development in years to come. Basically, this is driven by our ‘Vision 2030’ to make Saudi Arabia a global logistic hub. Our aim is to also triple rail usage for the greater good of our society and for prosperity, as well as to contribute to sustainable developments and reducing emissions.

We have a very ambitious plan. Our strategy is a growth-centric one. It’s for the passenger sector, the freight sector, the connectivity of infrastructure, and reaches out to different cities and communities in Saudi Arabia and serving industries and business sectors.

We will soon begin work on several initiatives in order for us to achieve our strategic mandates. SAR is here at InnoTrans to explore the latest technologies, as well the capability that exists from international manufacturers and businesses in the rail industry, especially in technology and safety.

We have had many positive talks with leaders and knowledge experts, both in Germany and other countries, leading us to believe that we will soon be working on ambitious plans to achieve much together.

What is SAR doing to position itself as a leading innovator for rail technology in the region?

When we began the initial conceptualisation of our project, we considered the latest available technologies in the market, especially in regard to emissions, safety and customer experience. We recently launched an engineering centre to focus on R&D developments, teaming up with several technology owners around the world and key players in academia.

In addition to this, the specific conditions of our environment can be complex, with temperatures ranging from up to 55 degrees Celsius in summer, down to as low as minus seven in some parts of the country in winter.

We are proud of our world class operations level, with on-time performance exceeding 95 per cent for our passenger services, with well advanced asset reliability and low asset downtime.

We recently launched an engineering centre to focus on R&D developments, teaming up with several technology owners around the world and key players in academia.

When we consider metric performance and service availability, service, reliability and asset utilisation, it becomes clear these are not achieved without excellent engineering and continuous innovation. Innovation is a journey, one which cannot be achieved by standing still.

Therefore, we focus firstly on developing our workforce. We have deployed many of our engineers all over the world with technology owners on secondment programmes and several training packages. This allows us to build our knowledge base that serves not only Saudi Arabia Railways, but also our nations in all of these aspects. Human capital development we believe is key in the lifelong learning process and we have invested heavily in this accordingly. Right now, we are also investing in an excellent balance of technologies as we move forward, allowing us to achieve the highest and utmost level of safety.

We are also making sure that our customers are served better with amazing experiences. Our customers receive a very high level of customer satisfaction which is attributed to our heavy investment in technologies. For example, investments in our digital channels mean customers do not spend more than 90 seconds booking a trip, giving them an efficient way to use our railways.

Haramain High Speed Rail (HHR) is one of the world’s 10 fastest trains and connects the two most holy cities, Makkah al-Mukarramh (Mecca) and al- Madinah al-Munawwarah (Medina)

Haramain High Speed Rail (HHR) is one of the world’s 10 fastest trains and connects the two most holy cities, Makkah al-Mukarramh (Mecca) and al- Madinah al-Munawwarah (Medina).

Why is being at InnoTrans so important for your company, and have you announced anything exciting?

Saudi Arabia Railways is a large nationwide railway company and our strategic mandates require us to grow our railway by doubling its existing size. We are therefore here at InnoTrans to explore partnerships and to team up with the private sectors in order for us to grow.

We have taken the opportunity of InnoTrans to sign a lot of agreements with strategic players in the market, for rolling stock, for signalling, training our workforce and extending the opportunities of digitalisation.

We have taken the opportunity of InnoTrans to sign a lot of agreements with strategic players in the market, for rolling stock, for signalling, training our workforce and extending the opportunities of digitalisation.

We have met with many global leaders and witnessed a lot of positive trends. There has been a huge focus on the post-COVID-19 recovery and the trends in investing in technologies. I think rail is the only option for all business makers to view as a sustainable means of development in the future.

We believe that our presence here will result in a lot of strategic partnerships in the coming months. We have an excellent alignment with a lot of our global leaders in the railway industries. We believe that our strategic deliverables will require a huge participation from all over the world to participate in this journey of development in our mega- and giga-scale projects in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

How will SAR continue to ensure it is a central pillar of the transportation sector?

We are working hard to achieve our goals. We have grown a lot over the last 10 years, and our future is looking very bright.

We are working at an accelerated momentum to ensure we develop our logistical reach. That’s to continue working with freight forwarding companies, and to provide a seamless service between all transport modes. To achieve this, we’ll be focusing on the last and first miles.

I also think that increasing rail’s connectivity will see a significant investment in infrastructure. That will allow us to be a central pillar of the transportation sector. Not only this, but we will be investing heavily in our data management and digitalisation which will allow us to form the basic ground for future partners to have easy access to our services.

The initiatives and programmes we are focused on will allow us to develop partnerships and continue to work collaborative with the industry, to ensure we have fully integrated mobility solutions as a company.

We are working hard to achieve our goals. We have grown a lot over the last 10 years, and our future is looking very bright.