INTRO: North-south and east-west light rail lines have been chosen to form the pilot phase of a major public transport project in the Saudi Arabian capital

PROPOSALS for a two-line light rail network could see the first phase operational in 2009, according to Jalal A Nafakh, Director, Transportation Unit, at the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh.

Speaking at the Mena Rail event in Dubai in December, Nafakh revealed details of the Metropolitan Development Strategy for Riyadh which was formally adopted by the High Commission in 2000. The strategy includes a multi-phase ’comprehensive public transport system’, the first phase of which is to develop a pilot project. The aim is ’to persuade the largest number possible of private vehicle users to transfer to public transport modes’ - at present 92% of trips in the city are by private car.

The plan must ’facilitate the participation of the private sector’ and ’reduce dependency on public-sector financing and operational expenses’. Studies suggest that by 2021 ’up to 3·3million riders per day could be using light rail and buses.

The same study examined various options for the most suitable mode, including commuter rail, metro, light rail, various types of bus, and personal rapid transit. Cost, capacity and other criteria were scrutinised, leading to the rejection of heavy rail and PRT. Monorails were considered but rejected on the grounds of high cost, as was an underground metro because traffic would not reach the economic threshold which was set at 25000 passengers/h in each direction.

Light rail and bus lanes were chosen for further studies, with light rail finally chosen as ’it can be very independent from road traffic, operates at higher speeds than the bus, offers higher capacity, and its timetable is more reliable’. The study also noted that the choice of light rail made it ’easier to meet the gender requirements’ - a reference to the segregation of women that is rigidly enforced in Saudi Arabia. Another element favouring light rail was that it ’has a modern image, a very important factor when introducing a new public transport facility’ as local people ’have formulated a negative image about Saptco buses’.

Pilot project routes

The final conclusion was that light rail was the most suitable mode, and two corridors were chosen for the pilot project. One is a 25 km north-south route, mainly along Olya Street. This would start at Prince Saud bin Mugrin road in the north where park-and-ride would be provided. A possible 50ha depot site has been identified near the northern terminus.

Heading south, the line would serve stations at the junction for the road to Al Ghdeer, Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz al Thani, Imam Saad bin Mohamed Road and Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Street. An option would see the stations elevated, releasing space on the existing road.

The line would continue from the Makkah Freeway to the main bus terminal, mainly along King Faisal Street. Major civil engineering work would be needed at several locations, including the Al Ma’azar Street underpass and the Al Washam Street viaduct. There would be 23 stations in all, and end-to-end journey time would be 41min.

Many important business locations would be served, including the Riyadh exhibition complex, King Fahd Park and Library, major commercial centres such as Al Oways, Taibah and Al Andalus markets, Kingdom Tower, the Akaria development, Al Fisaliyah Tower, and the Ministry of the Interior.

The proposed east-west route runs for 26 km along Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Road, the main spine of activity in the northern part of the city. Among locations served are King Saud University, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz University, the Ministry of Municipal & Rural Affairs, the Ministry of Education and several large commercial developments. The road chosen for most of the alignment is 60 to 80m wide, and so would easily be able to accommodate a pair of light rail tracks.

The route starts outside the eastern ring road where there would be two stations with park-and-ride. Other stations would be located east of Al Dawadmi Street, near Othan bin Afan Road, Turki bin Ahmed al Sidayri Street and Abu Bakr Al Sideeq Road. Four more stations are envisaged before the line intersects with the north-south route at Olya Street, west of which three stations are proposed before the terminus near the entrance to King Saud University.

Still to be carried out are engineering design studies which will specify surface or elevated alignments, station design and depots.

Capital and operating costs

Price tag for the north-south route is 880m riyals, of which 680m riyals would pay for the infrastructure and 200m riyals for a fleet of 22 cars. Annual operating cost is put at 25m riyals, plus 14m riyals for maintenance of the fleet and 21m riyals for feeder bus services.

Estimated price of building the east-west route is 410m riyals, of which 270m riyals would cover the cost of track and structures, with 140m riyals allocated to buy 15 cars. Operating costs are put at 15m riyals a year, plus 10m riyals for car maintenance and 15m riyals for operation of the feeder buses.

The study suggests that funds for the project could be raised by increasing the price of petrol, vehicle registration permits and higher driving licence fees. Use of parking meters is another potential source of funding, while ’if part of the traffic violation charges are collected’, yet further resources could be found.

Calculations in the study suggest that a 150 km network would generate benefits that would outweigh costs by a factor of four.

The proposals envisage that Riyadh Public Transport Authority would work with a Project Management Contractor, with private subcontractors responsible for operations, marketing and monitoring.

BYLINE: Jalal A Nafakh

Director, Transportation Unit, High Commission for the Development of Riyadh