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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – Trains Ancient and Modern

September 7, 2014


I’m just home from a business trip to Saudi Arabia. I’ve been travelling back and forth to the country for over thirty years, ten of them as a resident. In that time I’ve made countless internal flights between the major cities, and sometimes to outposts most western expatriates never get to see – from mountainous areas with green valleys and as many baboons as people, to small towns notable only for the size of their airports.

I’ve also eaten up my fair share of kilometres on the road, swerving on the highways to avoid manic drivers risking death to shave a few minutes from their journeys, running into sandstorms that strip the paint from your car and pit your windscreen, colliding with swarms of locusts that leave a nasty yellowish goo all over your radiator, all the while staying ever-vigilant for wandering camels.

The one Saudi mode of transport I had never used  – until a week ago – is the one most of us in Britain usually resort to when we couldn’t be bothered with driving and flights are too much hassle: the dear old train.

I am not alone. What was until recently the only train line in Saudi Arabia is the country’s best kept secret – at least as far as outsiders are concerned. It runs from Riyadh, the capital, to the eastern port city of Dammam. There are two stops in between: Hofuf, one of the towns in the Al Hasa oasis – a conurbation famous for its date palms and once one of the ten most populous cities in the world – and Abqaiq, one of the main  centres for the all-important Saudi oil industry.

Much of the traffic on the line is goods. Half-mile processions of containers and wagons full of the materials that feed Saudi Arabia’s endless development boom. Minerals, cars, white goods, downstream petrochemicals, frozen food. Trainloads of stuff that if carried by truck would render the Dammam-Riyadh highway even more dangerous than it already is.

But in amongst the goods traffic there are six passenger trains a day in either direction. The journey times compare favourably with equivalent car trips unless you’re in the suicide class of driver whose speeds would be enough even to give a German autobahn jockey a dose of atrial fibrillation.

On this trip a quirk in the schedule led me to abandon my usual drive-or-fly mode and step out into the unknown by sampling the Saudi train experience.

When I told a Saudi friend in Riyadh of my intention his eyebrows raised a little, and he murmured about the carriages being rather old and a bit stuffy – not a ringing endorsement given that the summer temperature here gets up to 50C. He gave a smile that I took to be the Saudi equivalent of “nowt as queer as folk”, and wished me good luck.

I inwardly scoffed at his misgivings, thinking that here was another luxury-sated Riyadi, and that I, with the pioneer spirit running through my British veins, was made of sterner stuff. If it turned out to be a nightmare, then at least it would be a good story to write about.

So I went to the Saudi Railway Company website, and set about making a reservation, only to discover that I couldn’t. There’s no online booking, which was a bit surprising. Everyone does online bookings these days, don’t they? Anyway, I checked out the times and found one that worked well. The second surprise was the price. A single second-class ticket for the 300 kilometre ride to Hofuf is 60 Saudi riyals – the equivalent of US$12. Compare that with $130 for a flight to Dammam, plus a taxi to Hofuf – 130 kilometres away – which would be another $90.

I decided to go first class, for all of 100 riyals, or $26 – still a steal at around one tenth of the airfare and taxi cost. But what was I buying, I wondered?

First class is called Rehab. Rehab? Is this a train for alcoholics or drug addicts? Surely not, for this is Saudi Arabia! If I didn’t know better, I might have thought of another meaning of the word. The only other long-distance train line in Saudi Arabia stopped running at the end of the First World War, before the Kingdom even existed. It was called the Hejaz Railway, and took pilgrims from Damascus to the holy city of Madinah. The Turks used it to bring troops and supplies for the defence of Madinah against the Arab revolt, commanded by Lawrence of Arabia, or El-Orens as the Arabs called him. What fun to have been travelling in a reconditioned carriage of that era, with the ghosts of El-Orens and his Bedouin tribesmen lying in wait for the train, dynamite at the ready.

Hejaz railway 2

The Hejaz Railway

Actually Rehab is the Arabic for welcome, a much more logical meaning of the word in this context. But still, it set me wondering when you’re offered the choice of train: “Regular” or “Modern”. Assuming that Regular means ancient in Saudi marketing-speak, I opted for Modern. Perhaps my Saudi friend was thinking of the former when he gave me his understated warning.

A few days before the journey, my sponsor duly made the reservation and picked up the ticket – an A4 sheet of paper in Arabic with what I assumed was my name – “SAEP H E” in English letters – about as remote an equivalent to Stephen as the imagination could conjure. On the other side of the ticket was a full colour ad offering me a pepperoni pizza or a chicken wrap for 59 riyals – about the price of the second class fare. More significantly the pizza company made use of the space to advertise for Saudi staff – a big issue these days since the Ministry of Labor started a recent initiative to get Saudi into jobs, with serious penalties for those firms that fail to reach their quotas of nationals on their payrolls.

On the appointed day I showed up at the station, which sits in an unprepossessing suburb of Riyadh. It’s near the famous Batha souk, which is the antithesis of Riyadh’s shiny, mall-studded centre. A place full of shabby shops selling designer stuff of dubious provenance and at unlikely prices. Batha doesn’t benefit from the watered greenery of the wealthy areas. It’s dusty and desiccated, like the most of the terrain around the city. The station itself sits next to what looks to be a massive industrial estate. In fact it’s the Riyadh Dry Port, where all the containers arrive from Dammam. It becomes pretty obvious what the main purpose of the line is. The passengers are a bit of an afterthought.

Riyadh Railway Station is not a monument to the heyday of the train as the ultimate passenger transport mode, like Grand Central or St Pancras. Not surprising since it was built long after the end of that era. But it’s spacious, cool and well laid out.


Riyadh Station

The great thing about trains in most places  – with the possible exception of India – is that you don’t have the usual airport hassle. You can turn up 20 minutes before departure and get straight on the train. The Riyadh check-in was fast, despite the inevitable X-ray machine, and there’s even a first class lounge. Not quite akin to an airline lounge – you get offered a cup of gahwa (Arabic coffee) and a couple of dates, but that’s the limit of the hospitality.

When departure time came up I had a momentary panic. The trolley with my bags disappeared. It turned out that an enthusiastic porter had thought they belonged to another passenger, and was about to put them on the train – without me. I stopped him at the last moment, and, reunited with my bags, stepped on to the carriage.

What followed was not one of the Great Railway Journeys of the World, but having driven from Riyadh to Dammam, I knew what to expect of the terrain. My allocated seat was comfortable enough. And none of that awful rush of the Gadarene sheep (no swine in Saudi Arabia) as passengers fall over each other to squeeze into their pitifully small seats on a domestic economy flight. All very calm. Plenty of room for kids to run up and down the aisle rather than spend the journey screaming with frustration at being held in the iron grip of a frazzled mother.

The carriage was cool – too cool for my taste actually. 40C outside and 18C in is just a bit too much of a contrast, but the same goes for every hotel room I stay in. I’m constantly fighting a battle against over-zealous air conditioning. In this case, there wasn’t much I could do about it, and everyone else seemed comfortable enough, so what the hell, when in Riyadh…. Also I was the only westerner on the train, so there wouldn’t have been much tolerance of mad dogs and Englishmen trying to jack up the temperature.

There really wasn’t much to see as we rolled out of the station. The industrial area – dun-coloured and dreary – seemed to go on for miles. It was eventually replaced by semi-open desert with ramshackle cabins, pick-up trucks and roaming camels – the Saudi equivalent of the country dacha, sans birch trees and gardens of course. And what there was to be seen was obscured by a thick layer of dust on the windows that created a grey-brown filter.

The guy sitting opposite me was an Egyptian soil specialist on his way to Al Hasa, where he spends his time measuring the salinity of the soil around the date plantations. He told me that since the national oil company, Saudi Aramco, started boosting production from depleted oil wells by injecting sea water into them, water salinity in the area has increased fourfold. In the old days sweet water springs would bubble up all over the oasis. These days it has to be pumped. One can imagine that there will be a tipping point at which the date plantations will no longer be viable. He and his colleagues had flagged the problem up with officialdom, but to no avail. After all, he said with more than a tinge of irony, Saudi Aramco knows best, and oil is more important than dates.

The sun set, and fortified with coffee and a sandwich from the trolley, I got stuck into a book. Two hours and fifteen minutes from departure, exactly on time, the train rolled into Hofuf station, disgorged me and a few other passengers, and set off for Dammam.

And then followed the final joy. Most major airports in the Kingdom are at least half an hour’s drive from anywhere. By the time you’ve retrieved your baggage and dragged yourself out through the throng of freelance taxi drivers, you’re looking at a minimum of an hour between touch-down and final destination – sometimes longer. In Hofuf, I jumped into a cab and was at my hotel in ten minutes.

And that was my first experience of Saudi trains. Now if you’re a regular train user in Europe or North America, you might say no big deal. But trust me, if you’re used to at least three near-death experiences every time you hit the highway, and hours of hassle and waiting around when you cross the Kingdom by air, you would not have taken that journey for granted. It was a relative joy.

Though there’s no railway network as such at the moment – just the one line to the East and a train system that takes the pilgrims in Mecca from one holy place to another, Saudi Arabia is beginning to catch up. Among a number of projects under construction is a line that goes all the way from Jubail in the Gulf to Jeddah on the Red Sea. It’s known as the Saudi Land Bridge. Also there’s the North-South Railway that goes from Riyadh up to the tribal heartlands of Buraydah and Hail up to Al-Haditha in the far north. This will be primarily for goods, and is important because the country is ramping up its mineral production – particularly bauxite – in the north. But apparently there will also be a passenger service.


And then there’s the long-awaited Haramain Railway that shuttles the faithful from the port city of Jeddah to Mecca and on to Madinah. If you’ve been on the Haj, the annual pilgrimage, along with up to 3 million others, you will know what the dust and pollution caused by the endless procession of buses and cars making the triangular journey does to the lungs. Take a flight out of Saudi Arabia after the Haj, and you will be surrounded by passengers coughing and spluttering in the attempt to rid their bodies of all the gunk that accumulates over that journey of a lifetime. Not pleasant for you or for them.

Finally, there are long-term plans to link Egypt, Jordan and Syria, as well as several of the Gulf states into the network.

The railways are the last piece of the Saudi transportation jigsaw. The country has highways connecting all the main population centres, some of them excellent, some in need to upgrading. It has numerous international and domestic airports, with improvement projects underway in Riyadh, Jeddah and Madinah. If the population can be enticed on to a fully developed railway network, as well as urban metro systems like the one currently being built in Riyadh, one would like to think that at least some of the 7000 people who die on the roads every year and the 38,000 who are seriously injured can avoid their misfortune.

For a whole host of reasons, including not least the benefit to public health and the environment, the railways can’t come to Saudi Arabia soon enough.

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