World-class airports and national airlines to match are characteristic of the GCC countries. Couple that with high-speed road networks, and it isn’t hard to see why air and road travel have dominated the discussion around intra-GCC travel over the last few decades. But significant developments, specifically in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, over the last few years are gradually bringing to the forefront the conversation around the use of railways to transport not just goods, but also passengers, across the region.

In 2018, the Haramain High Speed Railway (HHR) was inaugurated in Saudi Arabia. It is believed to be among the top 10 fastest electric-rail trains in the world. Trains on that line run at an average speed of 300kph and connect the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah with Jeddah, the King Abdulaziz International airport and the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). There is a slick fleet of 35 Spanish-built Talgo 350 trains that service the approximately 453km route. Each high-speed train has 13 cars configured in two classes – business and economy – and can carry a total of 417 passengers.

There are five stations along the route, with Foster and Partners having delivered stunning designs for four of them. The Jeddah airport station covers a massive 105,000 sqm making it among the world’s biggest train stations at an airport. The Makkah to Madinah route is covered in two hours and twenty minutes – nearly twice as fast as travelling by road. Such is the demand for the service that during Ramadan this year, the Haramain Express carried more than 818,000 passengers on more than 2,540 train journeys – a 265 per cent increase over the previous year.

The Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR) network, apart from the Haramain Express route, is broadly divided along the North Train Network and the East Train Network. The North Train passenger line extends 1,250km from Riyadh up to the kingdom’s northwest region to Al Haditha near its border with Jordan. The fleet servicing this route includes day trains that can accommodate 442 passengers, and night trains that each have a capacity of 364 seats and sleeping berths. Apart from the passenger fleet, the North Train freight line extends across 1,550km.

The East Train Network meanwhile has a 733km passenger line that links the kingdom’s capital of Riyadh to Dammam and passes through Abqaiq and Al Ahsa. The East Train Network fleet comprises 102 diesel locomotives and 75 passenger cars.

As domestic tourism rises in the kingdom, SAR witnessed an 84 per cent increase in passenger traffic across its network in the first six months of this year, carrying 4.4 million people. The number of train trips taken cumulatively on the North, East and Haramain networks totalled 16,404, a 46 per cent year-on-year increase.

A fleet of 35 Talgo trains are a part of the Haramain High Speed Railway (Image: Sourced from Talgo)
A fleet of 35 Talgo trains are a part of the Haramain High Speed Railway (Image: Sourced from Talgo)

UAE on the rise
The increasing popularity of the rail network in Saudi comes at a time when its neighbours are also taking steps to develop their own networks. Among them, the UAE has particularly accelerated its efforts over the last few years. In 2009, Etihad Rail was formed under a federal law and tasked with managing the development, construction and operation of the country’s national railway network across both freight and passenger divisions. By 2016, Etihad Rail began operating freight operations across a 264km route to transport granulated sulphur from Shah and Habshan to Ruwais.

A monumental moment in the country’s railway development came in December 2021 when the country’s government announced the launch of the UAE Railway Programme that would lay the foundation for an integrated system to facilitate the transportation of goods and passengers across the UAE, backed by an investment valued at a staggering Dhs50 billion.

That programme was classified under the country’s ‘Projects of the 50’ – a set of the country’s prioritised economic and developmental projects – and involved three main tranches including the development of a full-fledged freight network, the commencement of passenger rail services and finally the integration of transportation services wherein a network of light rail will be linked to the main passenger network to aid transportation within UAE cities.

The decision to classify it as one of the ‘Projects of the 50’ was justified when you consider that the government forecasted that the programme will overall generate Dhs200 billion in economic opportunities including Dhs11 billion in savings in travel time, distance and cost savings between stations, Dhs8 billion in road maintenance benefits as well as tourism benefits of Dhs23 billion.

In February this year, Etihad Rail inaugurated the network expansion comprising approximately a 900km line from Ghuweifat located on the border with Saudi Arabia in the west to Fujairah on the eastern coast of the UAE. The completion of that network meant full-fledged freight services commenced across the UAE, paving the way for the second tranche of the UAE Railway Programme – the development of its passenger services – to commence.

The proposed passenger services will link 11 regions and cities in the UAE from Al Sila in the west to Fujairah in the east. The trains – each with a capacity to carry 400 passengers – will operate at a maximum speed of 200kph. It will, for example, facilitate travel from Abu Dhabi to Dubai in 50 minutes, or Abu Dhabi to Fujairah in just over an hour-and-a-half. Etihad Rail estimates that 36.5 million passengers will be carried by the network annually by 2030. In June last year, Etihad Rail signed a Dhs1.2 billion deal with Spain’s CAF for the designing, manufacturing, supplying, and maintaining of passenger trains for the network.

The rail network in the UAE (Image: Sourced from Etihad Rail Newsroom)
The rail network in the UAE (Image: Sourced from Etihad Rail Newsroom)

To ensure that it gets the operational aspects of the passenger services spot on, Etihad Rail signed MoUs to study best practices and facilitate knowledge exchange with leading rail entities from around the world including Renfe, Spain’s national railway operator which operates the largest high-speed rail network in Europe, and British firm High Speed 1 which operates high-speed passenger trains in the UK.

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE develop their independent railway networks, the vision of a unified GCC rail network moved one step closer when Oman Rail, Oman’s national rail developer, signed an agreement with Etihad Rail to establish an equal ownership joint venture company – the Oman-Etihad Rail Company – to develop freight and passenger railway connections between the two countries last year. That project, with an investment pipeline of US$3 billion, will result in the designing, building and operation of a 303km network that links Oman’s Sohar Port to the UAE’s national rail network. While freight trains will run at 120kph on the route, passenger trains will do so at 200kph connecting Abu Dhabi to Sohar in 100 minutes. In a major boost to its plans, the joint venture company also recently signed a cooperation agreement with Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company.

Into the future
Beyond high-speed rail networks, what will the future of passenger rail travel within the GCC look like? Italian luxury hospitality company Arsenale, co-founded by Paolo Barletta and Italian billionaire Nicola Bulgari through his Annabel Holding company, and backed by Oaktree Capital Management, has a few answers.

As Barletta, its CEO, told Business Traveller Middle East recently, Arsenale has two main divisions. The first is the hospitality real estate division wherein it invests in buildings within Italy and converts them into luxury hotels, while the second is a luxury train cruising division. “We have created the know-how to revamp carriages sourced from the Italian railways stock, and turn these cars into luxury products. We buy the cars and renovate them in our factory in the south of Italy. We have proprietary agreements with several important players in the industry for the supply of air conditioning, brakes, and the fitouts of the interior. We are the ones who are manufacturing the train ourselves,” says Barletta.

Arsenale’s trains are designed to recreate 1960s glamour. Its first luxury train, La Dolce Vita which was born out of an agreement with Accor’s Orient Express, will begin operations next year with a fleet of six trains that will run across Europe from Italy to Paris, Istanbul and Split with one-three night packages and offer fine dining experiences and accommodation in suites.

Arsenale has now partnered with national railway entities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to bring that luxury train cruising concept to the two countries, each with its own dedicated train. In March, it signed a memorandum of understanding with SAR for the Dream of the Desert project in Saudi Arabia. Arsenale will deliver a train with 40 luxury cabins that will operate in the kingdom from Riyadh to Qurayyat near the kingdom’s border with Jordan.

The exteriors of the Foster and Partners designed station in Madinah (Image: Supplied by Foster and Partners, Nigel young)
The exteriors of the Foster and Partners designed station in Madinah (Image: Supplied by Foster and Partners, Nigel Young)

Following the announcement of the Dream of the Desert project, Arsenale also signed an MoU with Etihad Rail to develop a cruising train that will consist of 15 luxury coaches and travel from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and on to Fujairah in the UAE. The dream for Barletta would be to at some point link the Saudi Arabia and UAE train services. “In the future, I hope the two networks will be connected to then have a cross-regional service going from one country to the other. Imagine the beauty of going from Dubai and spending one night in Riyadh and then coming back to Dubai or Abu Dhabi.”

As the development of passenger railway networks progresses at pace, integrating them with other existing transport solutions for first- and last-mile connectivity will also be key. To that end, in June SAR expanded a partnership with Uber wherein Uber’s Reserve product has – in a world-first for Uber – been integrated into a rail platform. SAR’s customers can now therefore pre-book up to four Reserve rides to and from seven train stations in six cities across the kingdom when purchasing train tickets via the SAR website or app.

The future of railways, especially in Saudi Arabia, would also be linking the mega projects under construction in the kingdom. In May, Saudi’s giga project of NEOM awarded a €1.4 billion contract to a joint venture between Italian firm Webuild and Saudi company Shibh Al Jazira Contracting Company (SAJCO) to design and build a 57km line called the Connector which will link The Line and Oxagon in NEOM via a high-speed railway. The project includes building tracks to support trains operating at speeds of 230kph as well as two freight railway tracks. This agreement comes against the backdrop of local media reporting officials from the kingdom last year saying that Saudi aims to nearly triple its railway network with plans to add 8,000km of new tracks.

Developing the rail networks will also go a long way towards delivering Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s commitment to its net zero goals. In Saudi, for example, the volume of goods transported by the country’s freight trains in the first half of this year reached 12 million tons, an increase of 13 per cent year-on-year, which led to a reduction of 970,000 truck trips. Etihad Rail meanwhile says that its network would potentially reduce CO2 emissions in the road transport sector by 21 per cent per year by 2050. There are plenty of good reasons why countries in the region are seizing the moment and doubling down on their efforts to develop their railway networks.