Madinah Metro needs 'best minds in the business'

Madinah is a holy city on the rise, looking to go state of the art with a mega billion public transport program that’s perplexing the best engineering brains in the business

A general view of the Prophet Mohammed Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Medina.
A general view of the Prophet Mohammed Mosque in the Saudi holy city of Medina.

“The Madinah public transport program will require the best of the best minds in the construction, consulting and engineering business to mull over the challenges that the project presents,” CH2M HILL International Rail Director said during a recent Middle East Rail summit held in Dubai.

Mark Loader together with engineer Mamdouh Tarabishi, Public Transportation Program CEO of Al Madinah Al Munawarah Development Authority threw down the gauntlet asking interested parties to participate in building a platform for “technical innovation” to overcome a unique set of problems.  

The Madinah public transport program is certainly one of the largest public transport programs in the Kingdom. Al Madina is the second holy city in Saudi Arabia after Mecca and is visited by 12 million pilgrims from around the world every year. Situated 320 km north of Mecca and 900 km west of Riyadh, the city’s resident population of 1.3 million is increasing and expected to more than double by 2040 up to 3 million.

So how do you develop a transport plan in a city that not only doesn’t have one, save for taxis and hardly a public option, but it’s also where residents make up but a small part of the equation, as they are outnumbered 10 to 1 by visitors? “Logistics is going to be key because the population is fairly unique, dominated by 12 million visitors and not by people commuting to work. Normally you design for peak hours, but here we will need the greatest minds to come up with solutions that creates balance between resident and visitor needs,” said Loader.

Madinah is a congested city with pedestrian and cars fighting for right of way. On November 5, 2014, a Cabinet plan was approved to develop and implement an 8-year program for a state of the art public transportation services based on three metro lines with 71 stations and two BRT lines covering 34 km and 36 stations, with four express and seven feeder bus routes and all necessary service facilities and infrastructure required.

The unified transport control system and the Intelligent Transportation System will likely automate the metro making it driverless

“The development is based on financial and environmental sustainability principles. It will seek revenue streams from devised transportation corridors to minimise government subsidies towards servicing the project and will use modern energy conservation techniques,” announced Tarabishi. All metro lines eventually pass through the central Madinah district. Most lines will be at ground level while others will be underground or elevated. Each train will have 3-4 carriages, but up to 12 carriages for those passing through the central Al Haram area. “The modernisation of the system will entail infrastructural road upgrades throughout the city,” Tarabishi added.

Infrastructure related works present their own set of challenges.

What’s below the ground is anyone’s guess. “Data is missing in certain areas and at certain depth we may encounter archaeological sites due to the historic nature of the holy city,” said Tarabishi. “As such, we will likely run into delays at different periods of the project.” While delays are likely part of any project this size, what’s problematic is the fact that Madinah is a volcanic site. “Madinah is unique. As soon as you come out of the airport, you see the edge of the lava flow. It’s a volcanic area and the geology of the area is dominated by lava. As an engineer I’m looking for ways to build a tunnel through lava. It’s hard substance and intermixed with ash. It is a real opportunity for technical innovation. We need the best tunneling engineers in the world to contrive solutions,” said Loader.

When implementing an integrated public transport service, we always keep in mind the commuters, said Tarabishi. “Some Muslims spend their lives’ savings to visit the sacred Mecca and Madina. The least we can do for them is to service their needs. Our services need to be seamless between different modes of travel.” Madinah gets visitors from many nations which means integrating several languages in the communication. The bus program will cover the whole city and connect to the Metro. Technology for real time information will be offered to commuters. BRT lines will have ‘smart’ buses, modern information displays, CCTV, and passenger safety information.

Loader said that the Airport link (Line1) and main area of hotels is a key element of this project. “We need to interface with other projects. The new airport is very close to opening. Integration will be key,” added loader. Prince Muhammad bin Abdul-Aziz International Airport is due to open and would accommodate nearly eight million travelers annually once it operates. “With other metro and transport projects taking place in the region, there are lessons to be learned and Madinah’s master plan will benefit from them.”

The contract has been awarded to design the three metro lines. French engineering groups Egis and Systra have been jointly appointed to carry out design studies for the new Madinah Metro system. The pair have been appointed by the Madinah Metro Development Authority to design a system that will have three lines (green, red and blue) and will stretch over 95km.

Some 25km of this will be underground and 48km will run on overhead lines.

“By mid 2015, we expect the prequalification documents to be issued for consortiums and suppliers. Tendering is hopefully in Q1 of 2016 and we expect that by 2017 the contract to be awarded to a consortium,” said Tarabishi.


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