Under the National Transformation Programme (NTP), launched in 2016, one of the key areas highlighted for the transport sector is the development of public transport systems in larger cities. Public transport development simultaneously addresses a number of strategic objectives, ranging from improving the quality of life for citizens to environmental conservation and energy saving. A well-integrated public transport system can also boost economic efficiency, while providing jobs and bringing business to otherwise under-served communities. Public transport further provides a way to increase linkages across the Kingdom’s wide expanses, joining regions and integrating services around the peninsula. Various major investments are already under way in the sector, with metro, bus and other ride-sharing modes all standing to prove beneficial in the years to come.
The NTP sets a number of goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the main governmental body responsible for the sector, the Ministry of Transportation (MoT). One of these goals refers directly to public modes of transport, and seeks to expand its usage with an associated KPI of raising the number of cities with comprehensive public transport plans under development from 11 in 2016 to 16 by 2020. A second KPI is to raise the number of new public transport policies from zero to 20 over the same period.
Other KPIs refer to transport more generally, but have implications for public transport in particular. The NTP aims to bring more private investment into the sector, improve both hard and soft transportation infrastructure, and reduce the number of accidents – a target that a good public transport system can help achieve. In addition, the NTP stresses the importance of completing an integrated national transportation master plan, with this enabling efficient linkages between both public and private transport modes.
In 2011 the government set up the financially and administratively independent Public Transport Authority (PTA) under the MOT’s rubric to focus on the segment. The PTA has since undertaken studies of the public transport systems in a number of cities around the Kingdom, with this underpinning a major roll out of projects valued at some $140bn for 2015-25.
A key element of these plans is the King Abdulaziz Project for Riyadh Public Transport. Being implemented under the auspices of the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh and its executive arm, the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA), it consists of two parts: the $25.5bn Riyadh Metro and a new 22-line bus network.
The metro, which is currently under construction, is envisioned to consist of six lines connecting 85 stations along 176 km of track. Upon completion, it will be the largest urban mass transit system ever created from scratch, according to Business Insider. The network will address a major challenge for the Saudi capital – how to solve the transportation needs of a city experiencing exponential growth. The last official census in 2010 showed Riyadh had a population of 5.2m, while estimates of the current total lie over 6m, with major future growth widely forecast. At present, some 9m trips per day are made around the capital in private vehicles, adding to the city’s congestion and levels of pollution.
Important contracts have been awarded to ensure the metro meets a targeted completion of 2019. The largest is the $10bn contract won by Bechtel of the US to build the two most structurally complex lines. After using huge 1000-tonne boring machines to dig the tunnels, these lines – one running north-south and the other east-west – will account for 63 km of track and 40 stations. Bechtel is working with Almabani General Contractors, Consolidated Contractors and Siemens on this part of the network, with the Siemens supplying the trains. These will be fully automated and driverless, travelling at speeds of up to 90 km per hour.
In conjunction with the metro, planners hope a new bus network will reduce the number of car trips made in the city by 803m per year. The buses will provide transport to and from the metro stations, while also providing links between residential, commercial and industrial areas. Some 6625 bus stops will be built on 1200km of road. A dedicated bus-only route will include 103 stations, with these being served by two-unit ‘bendy buses’. Further out, a circular route will have one-unit buses, and smaller buses will connect outlying residential districts with the inner-city routes.
In May 2017 the ADA announced it was awarding a 10-year, SR7.86m ($2.1m) contract to supply 1000 buses for the network to the Public Transport Company, a joint venture between Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) and France’s RATP Dev. SAPTCO provides connections between more than 385 cities, towns and villages around the country, as well as local services, while RATP Dev operates mass transit services in 14 countries worldwide. Germany’s Mercedes Benz and MAN are providing the vehicles, which have been specifically tailored to the Riyadh project.
While spectacular in its own right, Riyadh’s public transport project is just one of several rolling out around the Kingdom’s cities. In keeping with the MoT KPI, the government is looking for greater private sector involvement in the various plans. So far, the officials behind the Jeddah, Makkah, Dammam and Medina metro projects have mentioned seeking potential public-private partnerships (PPPs).
The first of these projects saw some development in 2017, with news in May that the Jeddah Metro Company – owned by the government via the Jeddah Development and Urban Regeneration Company – was pursuing financing for an integrated transport plan involving metro, light rail, tram, bus and local marine services, along with a 2-km-long bridge. The network would eventually cover some 800 km, with build-operate-transfer contracts likely to be the preferred vehicle.
In Makkah, August saw first concrete poured for the Makkah Metro B Line, which will run for some 11 km in its first stage. This will also see seven stations constructed in the Holy City, with the B Line linking to the Jamarat rail terminal, the last station on the Haramain Express high-speed train between Jeddah and Medina. A Metro C line is also planned to run from Umm Al Qura University to Al Madinah road.
In October a Saudi-Spanish consortium was awarded an $853.2m contract for the first phase of a Makkah bus network. This will see 12 lines come into operation – seven local and five fast routes – with 83 stops on the former and 342 stations on the latter.
In Dammam, plans for a SR60bn ($16bn) public transport project were unveiled back in 2014, comprising both a metro and bus network. Two metro lines are envisaged, with the scheme also including the neighbouring city of Qatif. In Medina, a similar system is also still at the planning stage, with France’s Systra and Egis Group contracted to produce designs in 2015. A PPP is being sought for this network as well, which may ultimately have three metro lines, running for some 95 km, with 25 km underground.
Call A Ride
Saudi Arabia has also been quick to embrace the rising global phenomenon of ride sharing. Not only are investors from the Kingdom major players behind international services like Uber, but regional ones, too, such as the Dubai-based Careem. These services operate in the Kingdom and have proved a popular alternative to traditional taxis and personal drivers. They have been particularly popular with women, who have been prohibited from driving until recently, with Uber reporting that some 80% of its journeys in the Kingdom convey female passengers. The government also sees job opportunities in ride sharing as a potential help in tackling unemployment rates, although there is evidence that many drivers are working with Uber or Careem to supply a secondary source of income.
Now that women will be allowed to drive from mid-2018 under recent reforms, there is also some expectation that ride-sharing services may be a way for women to gain an income, too. Indeed, in October 2017 Uber was reported to be launching a dedicated “female partner support centre” in the Kingdom to assist new female drivers, with women expected to begin receiving personal driving licences from June 2018 onwards.
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