Going underground

Riyadh’s ambitious metro network should provide a welcome new way of avoiding the capital’s traffic jams.

Published in The Gulf, February 2014

The construction contracts have been awarded, the stations have been designed and the routes have been planned. All that is needed for Riyadh to get its metro is for the digging to start.

Until recently metros were a rarity in the region, but these days it seems no big city can do without one. The rush began with the Dubai Metro which opened in 2009 and others are being developed in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait City and elsewhere. But the largest of the lot is being built in Riyadh. Indeed, with 176km of track and 85 stations, those involved say it is the largest underground rail system under development anywhere in the world.

There are plenty of reasons why it is needed. The Saudi capital has a population of around 5.7 million, which is growing by four per cent a year. There are some 7.4 million commuter journeys a day but only two per cent of them are by public transport, according to FCC, a Spanish construction company, which is part of a consortium building lines 4, 5 and 6. And there are close to 2.4 million women in Riyadh who, for the moment at least, are not allowed to drive and who would benefit more than most from a reliable public transport system.

The project is being led by the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA) and is part of a wider public transport overhaul for the capital which also involves extensive investment in the bus network. The metro network will have six lines weaving across and around the city, with the new Bus Rapid Transit system filling some of the gaps in between.

The project is scheduled to take five years, according to a spokesman for the ADA, with an initial eight months of design work followed by four years of construction work and then four months of testing. That sounds like a reasonable plan, but some observers can already see potential problems. “The biggest challenge will be just getting it built,” says one industry analyst. “There are labour shortages in the construction sector in Riyadh at the moment and the metro project is only going to exacerbate that. It’s going to need a large labour force.”

If labour shortages persist it could push up the cost, but even as it stands it is not a cheap undertaking. Last year the ADA picked three consortia to build the metro system, with contracts worth a total of $22.4 billion. The largest was for $9.4 billion to build lines 1 and 2, which went to the BACS consortium headed up by US firm Bechtel. The Arriyadh New Mobility group, led by Italy’s Ansaldo STS, was handed a $5.2 billion contract for Line 3. The final three lines are being built by the Fast Consortium led by FCC in a contract worth $7.8 billion.

In addition, two project and construction management contracts have been signed. Riyadh Metro Transit Consultants, a joint venture of Parsons, Egis and Systra, is overseeing lines 1, 2 and 3 in a deal worth $556 million. The other contract, to manage work on lines 4, 5 and 6, is worth $264 million and was handed to the Riyadh Advanced Metro Project Execution & Delivery, a joint venture of Louis Berger and Hill International.

While the work is going on, local residents could well find the traffic jams they already suffer from become longer and more frequent, although the Fast Consortium says disruption will be kept to a minimum by digging access tunnels for the boring machines to the side of the main roads, and by using concrete slabs to allow traffic to continue moving at ground level while the under-road stations are constructed below.

The work will be made easier by the fact that most of the stations across the network are being built to a common template. However, four major interchange stations will stand out from the crowd, with innovative designs by world-renowned architects.

They include one serving the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) on the northwest corner of the city, which should be one of the busier stations on the network. It will connect lines 1 and 6 as well as serving as a terminus for Line 4 which runs to King Khalid International Airport. The station has been designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, with a bulbous, honeycombed façade that is supposed to mimic the patterns of sand dunes.

Another eye-catching design has been drawn up for Qasr al Hokm station at the intersection of lines 1 and 3 by Norwegian firm Snøhetta, with a futuristic polished stainless steel canopy at its entrance. The other two main stations are the Olaya station on lines 1 and 2 by Gerber Architekten of Germany and the Western Main Station on line 3 by local firm Omrania & Associates, and both feature undulating rooflines.

The overall aim is to have an initial daily capacity of 1.1 million passengers, rising in time to 3.6 million. Based on today’s traffic numbers that could take up to half the cars off Riyadh’s roads, but just how many of those seats will actually be used by locals remains to be seen.

The experience of Dubai offers reason for cautious optimism. Before it opened there was scepticism about whether Emiratis would use the metro and whether people would be willing to walk from a station to their ultimate destination, especially in the heat of summer. The answer to date has been that many are happy to do so. Between January and September 2013, the Dubai metro was used by around 98.7 million passengers, according to Mattar al Tayer, executive director of the city’s Roads & Transport Authority.

The authorities in Riyadh are trying to make it as easy as possible for locals to swap their cars for train carriages. There will be 25 park-and-ride stations, each with spaces for between 400 and 600 cars. There will also be on-board wi-fi and, as in Dubai, the trains will be divided up with dedicated sections for first class passengers, women and children, and the rest.

“When they first built the metro in Dubai it was new to the region and people weren’t used to it,” says the analyst. “It has taken people a few years to get used to it. It may not take as long in Riyadh because people will now be more familiar with the idea of a metro, but the impact won’t be overnight. It does take time for people to adjust to new transport modes.”