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Hold the flying cars. Trains can turn Saudi Arabia into a global logistic hub
Railways are vital to connecting the kingdom's 200 smart city projects. With hydrogen-powered trains, can the country make sustainable mobility a reality?
Of all the ambitious plans under the Vision 2030 banner, the most transformative may be the one to double the size of its rail network. Not only could this project accelerate several other initiatives promising diversification and economic growth, next-generation trains—using green hydrogen technology—could help Saudi Arabia hit sustainability targets.
Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR) recently doubled its ambitions to expand the kingdom’s 4,500 rail networks to 8,000 kilometers over the next 5-7 years. The multi-billion-dollar enterprise would incorporate the Landbridge, a 1,300 kilometers track that will connect the country’s ports on the Red Sea coast to those on the Arabian Gulf.
This master plan—one of the world’s biggest undertakings—is crucial for Saudi Arabia to become the region’s logistic hub and attract more foreign direct investment. It is estimated that at least 50 million tonnes of freight a year could cross the Landbridge instead of taking the slower and less efficient maritime route around the Arabian Peninsula.
RESHAPE TRANSPORT, ENERGY
At the same time, railways are vital to connecting the kingdom’s 200 smart city projects, which aim to reshape transport, energy, and urban design industries. SAR hopes that passenger rail usage throughout the country will have tripled by the end of this decade.
Last fall, Alstom, the France-headquartered global rail giant and a longstanding contributor to Saudi transport developments, signed an MoU with SAR to explore the use of trains fully powered by hydrogen. Alstom also opened a regional head office in Riyadh, hoping to advance its recent technological breakthroughs further.
“We have proved that our technology works, and SAR is keen because clean hydrogen fuel can be produced cheaply from solar energy, which this country is blessed with,” says Mohamed Khalil, managing director of Alstom Saudi Arabia.
“We’re now at the stage where we are carrying out the detailed environmental studies. This country presents geographical challenges—the rugged terrain and the sand, for example. So we’re now looking at what is possible in different parts of the kingdom and which, of the things we’ve done so far, might need adapting.”
Last summer, Alstom took what it called a “historic step towards sustainable mobility” when its Coradia iLint train traveled 1,175 kilometers from Bremervörde, in northwest Germany, to Munich without stopping to refuel.
Unlike polluting diesel trains, the Coradia iLint has a hydrogen fuel cell that produces electrical power for traction. The fuel cell supplies electrical energy by combining hydrogen, stored in a tank on board, and oxygen from the outside air. Only water vapor and condensation water are removed.
In the last few weeks, Alston has inked contracts to supply more than 40 trains in Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Norway.
FLEET OF HYDROGEN TRAINS
Though he won’t be pinned down on the total number, Khalil says he is confident that Saudi Arabia will get a “fleet” of hydrogen trains by 2030 because of the cascade of economic and environmental directives. “There are far too many stakeholders, too many different ministries involved, for it not to happen,” he says.
Khalil is equally confident new lines will have opened by then too. Currently, the kingdom has just three: the North-South runs from Riyadh to the border with Jordan and has lines to mineral mining operations in the north; the Riyadh-Dammam stretches 450 kilometers from the capital to the east coast; and since 2018, the 450-kilometer Haramain high-speed line (the HHR) has connected the holy cities of Makkah and Madīnah via King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City to the north. So far, the HHR—one of the world’s ten fastest trains—is Saudi Arabia’s only electric rail service.
According to Khalil, hydrogen trains would be introduced to the kingdom in phases. “Passenger trains will come before freight because the routes are likely to be more straightforward.” This, he notes, will also tap into another area that Saudi Arabia is keen to develop: tourism.
“There has been a big increase in visitors in the last year, as the country has relaxed entry visas,” says Khalil. “Railways will play a big part in what is a whole new sector, particularly when it comes to religious tourism, with more and more people wanting to make pilgrimages to the holy cities.
The hydrogen trains are likely to offer a more pleasurable experience for passengers, he adds, as they would be much quieter and have fewer vibrations, with the possible exception of the HHR.
Of course, while Saudi Arabia is enthusiastic about welcoming tourists, it is creating an ecosystem dedicated to producing—and becoming the world’s leading exporter of—green hydrogen as the country transitions to a low-carbon economy.
An $8 billion green hydrogen plant has already broken ground at NEOM, the city being built in the country’s northwest, which aims to supply 590 tonnes of carbon-free hydrogen daily from 2026. The kingdom aims to export hydrogen in the form of liquid ammonia to feed transportation systems worldwide.
“We expect a strong penetration of hydrogen in the rail industry in the years to come,” says Alexandre Charpentier, the rail transport expert at the international consultancy firm Roland Berger. “It will solve issues of lines that have not been electrified yet in a sustainable way.”
WHAT’S THE KEY CHALLENGE?
Indeed, according to Charpentier, the key challenge will be allocating hydrogen between the various industries—road, air transportation, chemistry, and industry. “Political arbitrages will be required for this allocation, but demand for hydrogen worldwide will be huge.”
Charpentier believes up to 20% of regional trains throughout Europe, for instance, could be running on hydrogen-powered electricity by 2035—the only thing preventing 100% take-up is the high cost for some countries to replace their diesel trains.
While neither allocation nor cost will be a problem for Saudi Arabia, Stefan Schrank, who has been in charge of developing hydrogen-powered trains at Alstom for the past decade, points out that there are inevitably teething problems with new technologies.
“No one has ever operated hydrogen-fuel cells in a desert climate,” he notes, suggesting that Alstom engineers may need to find a new way to cool down the waste heat that the fuel cells produce.
Heating issues aside, there is also the problem that train wheels can erode up to ten times faster in harsh terrains, while many parts of the network could face damage from sandstorms. While these problems are manageable, they will still require extra investment and certain expertise.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, Schrank reckons, still has a lot going for it, apart from its natural resources and the determination to make sustainable mobility a reality.
“No country has ever had refueling stations for trains before,” he points out. “Trains carrying heavy freight will require much more power than passengers, so there will be the need for hydrogen storage and filling stations close to the tracks.”
For the world’s first hydrogen train station in Bremervörde, the Linde Group, a processing and storing hydrogen specialist, built one cavernous tank to avoid transporting the gas to multiple locations.
“As much of Saudi Arabia is a huge blank slate, it can build all the complicated infrastructure from scratch,” notes Schrank. “That is a huge advantage.”