PROPOSALS to build a heavy haul freight line conencting Saudi Railways Organisation's existing main line with mineral deposits in the northwest of Saudi Arabia have been gestating for some time. The Communications Ministry approved in principle the construction of a new line following a World Bank study in 2000. But events at the end of last year suggest that further progress must await the outcome of more detailed studies into the feasibility of opening up the various mineral reserves.

An agreement was signed on December 14 between a consortium formed of the Saudi Mining Co (Ma'aden) and Saudi Oger and a grouping of Jacobs Engineering of the USA and Canada's SNC Lavalin. This provides for a 'bankable feasibility study' into the phosphate deposits located at Al Jalamid in the remote northwestern desert. Due for completion by the end of 2004, the US$9·4m study will determine whether or not the phosphate project is likely to be profitable.

Dr Abdullah Esa Al-Dabbagh, President & Chief Executive Officer of Ma'aden, suggested recently that Saudi Arabia's estimated reserves of phosphates total more than 3 billion tonnes, and that the Al Jalamid deposit could be mined at the rate of 11 million tonnes a year. Proven reserves at Al Jalamid were put at 213 million tonnes in the original studies.

An initial feasibility study conducted by Jacobs in 1990 suggested that a rail link would be the best way to move ore to processing facilities at Jubail, after a slurry pipeline was ruled out on technical grounds. The present plans envisage that around 5·2 million tonnes a year would be railed to Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province for processing or export. Distribution in the international fertiliser market could start in 2008.

Closely associated with the phosphate project is a plan to open up bauxite deposits at Az Zabirah, where reserves are estimated to amount to 650 million tonnes. The mineral would be shipped by rail to an alumina refinery which would also be established in the Eastern Province. Sufficient ore is available to feed the plant for over 25 years. Plans also exist for a combined refinery and smelter that could use domestic or imported bauxite, so avoiding total dependence on the railway. The combined plant producing aluminium metal is thought to be more profitable than simply refining the ore and exporting it for further processing.

The trunk section of the mineral line would run for 1100 km from Riyadh to Al-Qurayya through the provinces of Qassim, Hail and Al Jawf. There would also be two significant branch lines. One would run from Al Qurayya to the phosphate deposits at Al Jalamid, and the other would serve Ma'aden's bauxite deposits at Az Zabirah.

According to estimates drawn up by the Communications Ministry in 2002, construction of the mineral line through the desert, purchase of rolling stock, plus operations and maintenance for 30 years would cost around 5·8bn riyals. This would largely be funded by the private sector through the mining consortium. As the project stands at the moment, SRO has little or no involvement.