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14 December 2011

Saudi Arabia commissions gold-leaf train

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Lavish royal locomotive being built for royal family – but 35 public trains will help ease pressure on transport during hajj

By Ian Black

It may have been a tough year for Arab regimes facing unprecedented popular demands for change. But King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has signalled serene royal continuity by ordering the construction of a specially equipped private train to whisk him and his entourage between the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The luxurious VIP train is being built by the Saudi-Spanish al-Shoula consortium as part of the $9.4bn (£6bn) high-speed Haramain rail project to connect the two cities, revered by Muslims, and Jeddah, the entry point for hajj pilgrims.

According to al-Shoula, the royal design will be based on the ordinary rolling stock being manufactured for the project, and will consist of 13 coaches. But their decor, Constructionweekonline.com reported on Tuesday, will be considerably "more lavish interior decor featuring plentiful gold leaf, especially on the ceilings".

King Abdullah, 87, will enjoy the use of an audience chamber, a bedroom, two guest suites and a dining lounge, as well as meeting rooms.

The train will be able to accommodate up to 30 people and have its own hybrid power supply to enable it to run if power is cut from the main line. It will be able to run on the high-speed line or on other conventional lines.

The rolling stock for 35 electric trains is being built in southern Spain by Talgo. The ordinary trains will have a total seating capacity of 400-500.

The Saudi monarchy has authorised spending $130bn on subsidies, government salaries and housing programmes in an attempt to avoid Arab spring-type protests, though the Haramain (two holy places) rail project is part of a wider drive to upgrade the conservative kingdom's freight and passenger transportation.

When the 280-mile line is finished, five trains will arrive or depart from Mecca every hour. Trains will be air conditioned and fully sealed to prevent sand from entering. First class, business and economy class tickets will be available.

The line is expected to serve 166,000 passengers a day. Trains travelling at speeds of up to 200mph will pass through Jeddah, on the Red Sea coast, and connect with King Abdullah Economic City, now under construction. The trip from Medina to Mecca will take around two hours.

Muslim pilgrims could travel by rail to Medina a century ago on a line that began in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Most of it was blown up by Britain's TE Lawrence (of Arabia), who led the Arab guerrillas fighting for independence from the Ottoman empire during the first world war.

The Haramain contract was the biggest ever awarded to a Spanish company – an illustration of the importance of the Saudi market to cash-strapped western countries. Britain's Invensys won the bid to construct and maintain signalling and train control systems worth £420m.

(Courtesy: The Guardian, UK)

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