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World’s largest public transit system takes shape

Interview - March 19, 2016

A potent symbol of the modernization and economic vitality of Riyadh is rolling out. Part of the Riyadh Public Transport Project (RPTP) and on track to be delivered in just five years, the $23-billion construction of the city’s metro is the biggest project of its kind in the world. Scheduled for completion at the end of 2018, Riyadh will be criss-crossed by a 176km long network of six metro lines with 85 stations. Project Director Alwalid Alekrish discusses the full impact it will have on Saudi’s capital city.



What will be the impact of the metro in Riyadh’s society? Will it be key to reviving public life in Riyadh?

As you know, transportation is one of the main activities in a city. You can’t do anything without transportation. I believe the metro will make all different segments of the population more dynamic, increasing their mobility and flexibility, and helping them to reach their destinations, their places of work and family connections.

Until now, Riyadh has been a city dependent on automobiles, and this is not necessarily a human friendly experience. But now, with the Riyadh metro and the bus system, you will have people, in a way, “liberated” from the restrictions that cars put on them. We will see, I dare to say, that even the health of the people will change. On one hand we will have a reduction of the pollution levels, and all the health problems related to that; and on the other hand we will see more people walking. That’s something you can clearly see in big cities such as London, a metro system pushes you to walk at all times. And this will have a big impact on people. Again, they will find it easier to go anywhere they want; they will be more mobile. Right now you might be limited in terms of where you decide to take a job, where you go for entertainment, or to visit family members; if your relatives live far away you might go just once a month. All of this will change positively. Even schools, or universities will be reached easily, and it will give people the chance to choose where they want to go for their education rather than just choosing what is close.

I don’t think we can actually fully assess the impact this project will have; we can only guess and see the beginning of it. But to what extent and how far it will go is something that remains to be seen. Within the scope of hopefully five years, we will have this great transformation within the city. Most of the metro systems in European cities have “grown with the cities”. In London the system is 150 years old, Paris is just a bit younger; they all grew gradually. But here, within five years, the change will be like a shock, a good shock. People all of the sudden will find it easier to move around the city.


How can the car mobility mindset be changed?

Today, already some people, in order to get to the center of town, park their cars in the outskirts of Riyadh and take a taxi, just to avoid the hassle of driving. You still have to go through traffic, but they prefer to do it that way. Imagine once they have alternative means providing them the convenience of a shorter traveling time with a metro and bus system. The metro will definitely take off.

Some people might have doubts on whether or not the metro will be a success and be used by the citizens. The population is not used to this kind of mode of transportation, and yes we like cars, but I always say the following: when Saudis travel abroad they are good users of public transportation, preferring to select a hotel that is near a metro station. I think once the metro is working it will prove that is what people want and I’m sure they will make good use of it.


Due to the uniqueness and extent of the project, what are the main challenges for its implementation? How has ADA gained the support of the people of Riyadh during construction?

From the outset, when ADA was instructed to proceed with the metro, the project was originally conceived with different phases. The first phase was the construction of lines 1 and 2, which were supposed to be developed over a period of seven years. When the approval for this project came in 2012, it was not simply approved but extended to the construction of all six lines, 85 stations and the bus system in five years. So immediately at ADA we started thinking what could be the risks of this project.

I would say there are two main risks, the first one being utility diversion, since we are working in a living city and this is a very intrusive project. Utility diversions were the main and the earliest risks that the project could face. And the second one is the acceptance of the population, having people like the project and getting them on board. ADA always thought about the end of the project, and in order to get the people to use the system it is crucial to gain their goodwill during construction. If you manage to have the people feeling good about the project, when it ends they will be more likely to use the system.

For this purpose ADA created a group with the utility companies, telephone, power, water, telecommunications… the Governor wrote a letter to all and invited them to work together in resolving this diversion. The first step was to locate these utilities, and then finding a solution to all the concerns, and of course then acting accordingly. All of this required interfacing with these utility companies at different stages, so we got them on board; they have offices here with the project team and a clear work process was established by ADA in coordination with the rest of stakeholders, even agreeing on approval periods.

I think if you ask anybody on this project they will tell you this has been a tremendous success. We never actually thought it would work so beautifully. It is not perfect and we always hope for more, but it is providing solutions to the problems.

The other thing was engaging the public, and this pushed ADA to get into a new area. In a way, this is the first time we have done something like this; but I’m glad to say, two years into the project now, that if you ask someone on the streets about their impression of the project, their feelings about it, overwhelmingly you will see a positive perception.

Our public relations team has amazing ideas; we interface and work hand in hand with daily contact, coordinating with them at all the stages of the project, even to the level of communicating detours. We never allow a contractor to implement a detour before the PR team has the chance to do their job and communicate with the public.

In terms of public relations we do this at different levels. One of course is going through the mass media, TV, print and social media, but to add a personal touch to it we decided to go door to door to the residents and shop owners affected along the detour, and have face-to-face communication with them, sit down and explain how it will be implemented, providing contact information, etc. So they feel they are actually being treated with respect and taken care of; they feel part of the project. On top of that, we have the call center for any enquiries, concerns and recommendations. All of those calls are resolved by our PR people or by a specific department if needed. All of that has made the public very excited about the project. This project is people friendly; we have not forgotten about them.

Hopefully when we get to the next stage of our public relations program, which is about getting people more aware of the metro and the bus and start talking about using the system, they will be even more receptive. In fact other cities should learn from ADA, and what they have done in Riyadh, I think it has been good. Also, to ensure the proper development of the project, at the Governor’s level we created a committee called The Higher Committee integrated by the Governor and a group of ministers: the Minister of Finance, Minister of Transportation, Minister of Housing and Rural Affairs making all the big decisions; whatever we need we can go directly to them. We also realized that in order to achieve this great project we needed to stay close to our partners, so we constructed these offices and we stay in constant touch with our PMCM, our VP and President. They are involved in the day-to-day affairs to ensure that whatever we need we have the right and fast access to it. It has been wonderful to see how everybody is on the same page up until now.

We also realized that this project would be only possible if we had capable contractors so we went through an effective pre-qualification process that involved announcing the project internationally. I remember we received more than 300 submissions for pre-qualifications, those were filtered and then we settled on what we have now, 3 consortiums, composed of different companies from different countries. The first consortium led by BACS with package 1, package 2 for ANM and package 3 led by FAST consortium. As you drive around the city you see the effect of having experienced and knowledgeable teams on the project.


What are the architectural concepts behind the design of the stations, and which would you say are the most remarkable?

If you look at the image of the project as a whole, the Riyadh Metro is a very modern and high tech one. The design of the normal stations is modern, however ADA has selected four stations of particular importance and made them iconic in terms of size and design. For these four stations we had international competitions and we had four design teams that each won one station, and they are moving forward in terms of design and construction. We are now working on 85 stations as of today, four of which are the iconic ones.

For the design of the trains, although we have three different suppliers, which normally have different systems and designs, we worked during the tendering and negotiations to have a unified style. Of course they are not identical because each system has its own intrinsic style, but if you look at the train you will know is a Riyadh Metro train.

We also tried to unify the appearance of the stations by having a uniform canopy design so you can recognize it as a metro station, and I think we have succeeded to a large extent in that. Even the buses, you can tell they are the twins of the metro; they remind you of the metro; it’s all part of one transport system.


Sustainable development has been an aim of the project from the beginning and the stations have been designed using solar energy and other environmental friendly solutions. Also stations are intended to be a meeting point for the citizens. What are some of the main features offered to travelers?

In all the stations, we are meeting the requirements for silver Low Impact Development (LID) certification, having a good level of environmental care. Also the stations were conceived to be sort of a destination on their own, as opposed to the typical station that you just get somewhere else.

These four iconic stations are different: the commercial space is bigger than in the traditional ones, with dedicated parking and office space for possible government bodies or organizations, like a post-office. We are giving people the right reasons to come to these stations. And of course the general architecture and quality of these buildings will be an attraction in itself. Not only that, we are also developing the surrounding areas of the stations; we don’t just focus on the building, we look at the environment as well – that’s the way ADA works.

One of the key factors of this project is the Transport Orientated Development, or TOD. This is the urban development of the metro corridor; it is not just building the stations, but making sure the roads along the corridor are improved to allow people easy access to the stations, to make walking enjoyable, appealing, safe during the day and night. It will also include the development of commercial, residential and public spaces around the metro stations. The whole project is about transforming the city, not just about the metro.


According to the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh (HCDR): “The plan includes maximizing the number of Saudis working on the metro project until its completion.” What is the impact of the metro in terms of job creation?

Most of the ADA team and staff are Saudis, I would say overwhelming majority are nationals. Within the PMCM we have around 860 Saudis working, male and female, in different disciplines. A lot of our nationals are new graduates. We made a point with the DB and PMCM to make sure they are given meaningful tasks and productive work.

Within any team there is always a learning curve, and particularly on this project, more than any other project I have worked on, because within the consortiums you have different companies from different countries so there is a learning process on getting to know each other. There is an important cultural aspect as well. Within the consortium there has to exist a learning attitude. And then of course at the PMCM we have different nationalities and different languages too.

Once we passed those initial stages, and especially for the past two months, we have been seeing more and more Saudi engineers attending our meetings and doing presentations – this means they are learning and moving forward.

Of course, the construction stage is only a temporary one – five years and it is over. Then you get into the operational phase, which is long term, with an estimated 7,000 employees for its operation. That will play an important role in terms of employment.

There are plans put in place and ideas about how to maximize the role of Saudis during that stage, and what we see is that there are people working here who are prime candidates to move over, so we consider training nationals as a high priority. We are talking with universities about setting up internships for students; we go there to do presentations and attract students. So I am hoping that all of that will result in a higher number of Saudis working for us. Now we are talking about 10% Saudization, but with time it will increase.


Could you tell us some information about your background?

I’ve been working with Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA) for about 20 years now. I got my Bachelor Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh (USA) and a Master’s Degree in Structural Engineering from King Saud University; then I joined ADA and have been working in different kinds of projects since then. First, I started with small ones and progressively moved to more complex projects.

The latest project prior to the metro was Diriyah, which is now a world heritage site. It is a very important area of the country, since it was the capital of the first Saudi State. Given its historical and archaeological importance, ADA has developed it and improved it to become a tourist attraction, with museums and traditional mud construction. I was also involved in other educational projects like King Fahad National Library, and now I am here working on the metro.

Every project gets more and more challenging. I think working for ADA has been a valuable experience; it has given me the opportunity to work in a broad range of projects. Here we don’t just concentrate on a specific type. Certain agencies will concentrate on schools or hospitals, for example, but ADA fortunately has the luck of developing a wide range of projects, from very small ones, such as schools, to the biggest of all – the metro – and everything that is in between: infrastructure projects, roads, buildings of different kinds, the King Abdullah corridor, and the centre of the city.

Working with very talented people at ADA, under the leadership of the Governor, has been a tremendous benefit and experience for me; it has been an opportunity that got me to where I am today. King Salman was the governor that instituted ADA; he created this institution and was the first head of it. We could say it is his “baby” and he laid the foundation for the way both ADA and the High Commission work today.


How do you imagine Riyadh in the future and how do you think the metro is going to impact the image of Saudi Arabia internationally?

In a way I envy my children; I think the city is going to be a much better place. Not that it is currently bad – Riyadh is a great city to live and work in, but it is going to be even better in the future. Our kids will have a more fun city perhaps to live in, and internationally people will realize more about the fact that Saudi Arabia is a modern and welcoming place. That will attract possible investment in the future, more people will want to come here, live here, and all that adds to the flourishing of the city and the population.

I have a very positive outlook for the future, and I hope I am here to see it. ADA looks after the sustainable side of the city having a proactive and visionary approach to public spaces, parks; they all complement the lifestyle that the metro will encourage. ADA has transformed the city and has received many international awards recognizing its efforts and development style.

There is no doubt in my mind that the people of Riyadh will have a better city in the future as a direct result of increased mobility and the new economic opportunities that the metro will bring.