Making of a Mining Marathon
By Andrew Willis
Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in its railway network as part of its Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy and reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil. The plan includes initiatives to transform Saudi Arabia into an investment powerhouse and global logistics hub, as well as a concerted push to develop several non-oil industries such as mining.
The Middle Eastern country estimates that its Northern Borders region contains about 500 million tons of phosphate ore, equivalent to 7 percent of the world’s proven reserves. Phosphate is largely mined for its use as a fertilizer in the agricultural sector.
Other important untapped reserves in Saudi Arabia’s Northern Borders region include bauxite, gold, copper and uranium. As a result of these, the G20 country intends to more than triple the mining sector’s contribution to the nation’s economic output by 2030.
As part of the diversification strategy, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman recently inaugurated the first phase of a SAR85bn (US$22.7 billion) mining project in the Northern Borders region. The proposed Waad Al-Shamaal project is an industrial city that will sit on about 440 square kilometers. As well as providing key infrastructure for the burgeoning mining industry, it will also include complexes for the production of glass and plastics, as well as an additional complex for solar energy.
Several companies outside the Middle East are already benefiting from Saudi Arabia’s push into mining. In 2015 The Greenbrier Cos. won a contract to supply more than 1,000 railway wagons to the Saudi Railway Co., which will use them to transport molten sulfur and phosphoric acid to the Waad Al-Shamaal industrial city.
Greenbrier is a U.S. company, headquartered in Lake Oswego, Oregon, which specializes in the design and construction of freight railcars and marine barges. After winning the Saudi contract in 2015 the company’s Wagony Swidnica subsidiary in Poland started to build 1,185 railway wagons to U.S. standards.
Between 2016 and 2018 these railway wagons were then transported thousands of miles by rail, ship and road to the project site in Saudi Arabia. The freight forwarder for the project was ALS, a British logistics provider that specializes in the transportation of oversized, abnormal and heavy-lift cargo shipments.
“We organized the whole chain from the factory in Poland up to the final destination in Nariyah in Saudi Arabia,” said Ronald Verkaik, ALS branch manager, who oversaw the two-year transportation project.Overcoming Moving Hurdles
The transportation project was carried out successfully, but was not without certain difficulties. The first hurdle came in the form of different regulatory railway standards. Each 30-ton Greenbrier wagon was 14.3 meters long, 3.2 meters wide and 4.5 meters tall, too high to transport by road. Permission was therefore sought to transport the U.S.-standard wagons over the European-standard Polish railways.
To do this Greenbrier produced an initial semi-finished wagon for testing by local authorities. Key areas where U.S. and European standards differ include braking technology and wagon couplers. In the end, adaptors were used to enable a Polish locomotive to pull the U.S.-standard wagons.
“It took time but finally they gave the go-ahead in Poland to move these wagons by rail to the Port of Gdańsk,” Verkaik said.
To transport the Greenbrier wagons to this historic port ALS hired a Polish locomotive that could pull 30 wagons in one go. These were then left at the station immediately prior to the port where port authorities then collected them using their own locomotive and made the final short journey to the loading area at the quayside.
It was important that this changeover happened relatively quickly to avoid graffiti being painted on the wagons, Verkaik said. The locomotive hired by ALS then went back to the Greenbrier factory to collect another 30 wagons, the journey taking roughly a day.
Once quayside, the railway wagons could not be lifted using cranes on account of their design. So instead each wagon was winched onto a MAFI roll-on, roll-off trailer with embedded rails.
“In the port they put a winch on a tugmaster which they could position at the beginning of the ro-ro trailer,” Verkaik said. “And then you just connect the steel cables and winch it onto the trailer. It was a fairly smooth operation.”
The main lashing was done to avoid the use of steel chains, using instead Cordlash, which is a material used for one journey and then discarded. ALS hired a marine surveying company to calculate the correct lashing procedure to ensure the wagons did not move while traveling by sea. Each wagon was then lashed to its ro-ro trailer which in turn was lashed to the ship’s deck using chains.
Bahri, the national shipping carrier of Saudi Arabia, carried out the transportation by sea. The company owns 92 vessels, including six multipurpose vessels that were used to transport the Greenbrier rail wagons from Poland to Saudi Arabia. The MPVs have the capacity to handle ro-ro cargo on multiple decks and are equipped with heavy-lift cranes.
Bahri bought 300 MAFI trailers for the project, all with embedded rails. Sixty railway wagons were loaded onto 60 MAFI trailers and then parked in a storage area at the quayside to await the arrival of a ship. They were then loaded with tugmasters onto the main and one lower deck of the ship.
At the start of the loading procedure there were a couple of teething problems as the stevedores in Gdańsk maneuvered the units. Initially one individual tugmaster was used to pull a ro-ro trailer onto the ship’s deck, but they struggled with the weight of the wagons. So the procedure was altered so that one tugmaster pulled each ro-ro trailer and wagon while another pushed, solving the problem.
“We were probably the only carrier that was in a position to accommodate these railcars, both from a door height perspective and then from a capacity perspective,” said Matthew Luckhurst, vice president for liner services at Bahri Logistics. “And we took on over 300 MAFI trailers. That was by far the largest fleet of that particular type — the 62-foot MAFI with embedded rails.”
The railway wagons were gradually loaded and transported over a 20-month period between 2016 and 2018, with one ship carrying 60 railcars departing from Gdańsk each month.
Sailing time to the destination port in Saudi Arabia was about 30 days, depending on port stoppages along the way. The ships typically did not sail direct from Poland to Saudi Arabia, instead stopping at ports like Antwerp and Bilbao before passing through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal and on to the Port of Dammam in Saudi Arabia.
“We loaded all the rail wagons with no damage, no major incident, no significant delays or disruption to either the production or the delivery schedules,” Luckhurst said. “We are extremely proud of that.”Final Destination
Dammam’s King Abdul Aziz Sea Port is the largest in the Middle East Gulf and a key link between Saudi Arabia and the outside world, exporting the kingdom’s products and importing many of the goods it needs.
The port is a major export center for the oil industry, and also a key distribution center for several landlocked cities such as Riyadh, which is linked to Dammam by a railway line. Indeed, the population of Dammam city is growing at one of the fastest rates in the world, partly because of the busy port and the revenue it generates.
After docking of a Bahri ship at Dammam, the 60 MAFI ro-ro trailers holding the railway wagons were offloaded and driven to a storage area in the port. After customs clearance the wagons were then winched from the ro-ro trailers to low-bed trailers and then trucked to Nariyah, a small town about 250 kilometers north from Dammam. A separate truck carried each railway wagon.
“It took 10 to 14 days to move the 60 wagons from each ship to the jobsite. And then we waited for the next ship to arrive,” Verkaik said. In Nariyah a ramp was used to discharge the wagons from the low-bed trailers onto the railway track using winches again.
“It was a huge job, but I have to say all the parties involved worked as partners together and that helps a lot,” Verkaik said. “Everyone had the same mindset, and when there were minor issues we managed to deal with them because everyone was open to each other.”
Scale Of Projects
One of the key challenges for all participants in the project was the need to remain focused, given the transportation project’s large scale and long duration. One of the risks posed by the multiple deliveries was that those involved could potentially slip into “routine mode,” leading to a higher probability of damage or accidents, Verkaik noted.
Given the sheer ambition of Saudi Arabia’s diversification plan, more large-scale transportation projects seem inevitable in the coming years. When the second phase of the Waad Al-Shamaal project in the Northern Borders region is completed, Saudi Arabia’s production of phosphate fertilizers is expected to rise to 9 million tons per year, making it the world’s second-largest producer.
Saudi officials say the project is expected to create 10,000 new jobs. This is a key component of the country’s 2030 Vision strategy with unemployment hovering above 12 percent.
Saudi Arabia’s diversification has already proved to be a boon for foreign companies, and Greenbrier is no exception. In October the company reached an agreement to form a joint venture with the Saudi Railway Co. under which the parties will invest and generate investments totaling 1 billion Saudi riyals (US$270 million) in the Saudi rail industry.
And these projects in turn are bringing large-scale jobs for breakbulk carriers with the expertise and capacity to carry them out.
Andrew Willis has worked as a journalist for more than a decade in countries including Argentina, Belgium and Colombia.
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