Railways in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are very new. Two major lines of world-class standard have been completed just since 2015, while the oldest dates only from 1981. KSA can also claim one of the world’s busiest metro lines, although it only operates for 7 days every year!
As the network has expanded rapidly in recent years, so the organisations that operate the railways have changed too. While the operations of the 3 routes remains impressive, the digital communications are somewhat fragmented and surprisingly patchy. Crucially, there is no central digital presence for the railways of Saudi Arabia, such as a national website or app. This tends to cause confusion where some users can’t find the stations they need to travel from.
The 3 routes are:
Riyadh and east to Dammam, operated by original operator Saudi Railways Organisation (SRO). On the days I researched this piece, SRO’s website was down (server error) via both its domains. As this might be an effect of the Coronavirus pandemic, I’ll continue to check periodically and will update this review when the new website appears.
Riyadh and north to Hail, operated by new operator Saudi Arabian Railways SAR), new in 2018. SAR has the best digital presence of the three.
The Haramain High Speed Railway (HHR) links the Kingdom’s Holy Sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina via Jedda. It started running in 2018.
There does seem to be a policy to centralise the 3 railways operationally and digitally on a single brand and platforms but this has not yet happened, perhaps because of institutional resistance. SRO is the original railway organisation in the Kingdom, dating from 1966. It runs the 1981 diesel lines to Dammam on the Gulf coast. SAR is the upstart founded in 2006 to build and operate the electrified northern line to Hail. The Wikipedia entries reflect the institutional divide.
It makes sense to organise this post using the twelve criteria for the Digital Communications Index but to distinguish between the activities of each operator in each section. If you don’t want to read the whole thing, SAR scores 9/12; HHR scores 8/12; and SRO scores an interim 2/12 until it can be rated properly.
1. Is there a website?
SAR: Yes, so score 1 point. https://www.sar.com.sa/Home.aspx?. SAR has very good quality websites in Arabic and English. It has links to all its social media channels and provides online purchasing.
HHR: Yes, so score 1 point. https://sar.hhr.sa/sites/sro/Pages/home.aspx. HHR has very good websites in Arabic and English. It provides online purchasing for tickets, good information and also 12 videos. Strangely, despite HHR running great a Facebook page, the website only links to the Twitter account.
SRO: As I write this post in June 2020 I cannot see the website on either of SRO’s listed domain, namely: http://www.saudirailways.org and http://www.sro.org.sa. This is a major railway operation so it is inconceivable there is no website. I will check back to update.
Is the website ‘alive’?
SAR: Yes, so score 1 point.
HHR: Yes, so score 1 point.
SRO: Website down.
3. Is there an app?
SAR: Yes, so score 1 point. The app seems to work fine though it has mixed reviews for both Android and Apple versions, and the same score of 3.3 for both. Users are confused they can’t find the Haramain stations on this app, because it only covers the SAR operations from Riyadh to Hail.
4. Can you buy tickets online?
SAR: Yes, so score 1 point. You can buy tickets on both the SAR website and app, for SAR services only.
HRR: Yes, so score 1 point. Users can buy tickets on the HRR website, for HHR services only.
SRO: Website down.
5. Is there live running information?
6. Is there a Twitter account?
SAR: Yes, so score 1 point: @SARSaudiRailway / https://twitter.com/SARSaudiRailway. This is a very active account with nearly 100,000 followers, campaigns, good graphics and frequent updates.
HHR: Yes, so score 1 point: @haramainrailway / https://twitter.com/haramainrailway. This is a very active account with over 60,000 followers (in 3 years), campaigns, good graphics and frequent updates.
SRO: Yes, so score 1 point: @Saudi_Railways / https://twitter.com/Saudi_Railways. This is an active account with over 40,000 followers, campaigns, good graphics and frequent updates.
7. Is there a Facebook page?
SAR: Yes, so score 1 point. https://www.facebook.com/SARSaudiRailway. SAR has an active page which has attracted over 5000 followers since going live in 2018. It has campaigns, good graphics and frequent updates as well as images, videos and other good content.
HHR: Yes, so score 1 point. https://www.facebook.com/haramainrailway/. HHR’s Facebook page seems suspended during the Coronavirus pandemic but is usually very active with campaigns, good graphics and frequent updates. The page has attracted nearly 300,000 followers since going live in 2018 which shows how this line has caught the public’s attention.
The point of this question is to see whether the organisation ‘curates’ its videos and enables them to be shared, embedded, and seen in context. SAR and HHR both have good (short) videos covering aspects of their operations but, as they’re mostly on Facebook, I won’t give them points in this section.
SAR: No. There are 14 good videos on the SAR Facebook/video page. This is a thorough explainer video for the whole journey from Riyadh to Qassim:
HHR: No. There are very 12 videos on the HHR website and 15 on the HHR Facebook page. All are very short under 1 minute. This video by Spanish contractor RENFE is the best explainer for the project:
SRO: No. However there is a good recent video explaining SRO’s history here:
HHR: Yes, so score 1 point: https://www.instagram.com/haramainrailway/. The account has over 100 recent posts and has attracted over 10,000 followers in 2 years. It has good graphics and helpful links for travellers.
SRO: No, although it exists as a #hashtag and individuals have uploaded images.
10. Can you subscribe to a newsletter?
SRO: Website down
11. Is there evidence of campaigns?
All three railways run strong campaigns separately, and have also joined forces during the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic to run joint public health campaigns.
SAR runs campaigns for public safety awareness (such as crossing the line) and Coronavirus updates. It also encourages tourism to the cities it serves north or Riyadh, featuring advertisements that explain the history of certain monuments and artefacts. These are very striking with a dark background. Score 1 point.
HHR runs campaigns for Hajj pilgrims, safety announcements, the Coronavirus updates and more. Score 1 point.
SRO runs campaigns but these are only visible on its Twitter account. I’ll update this section when the website reappears. Score 1 point.
12. Is there good overall engagement?
SAR. It feels like SAR is present and active on multiple platforms to encourage views and engagement. It has attracted good numbers of followers in just two years. So score 1 point.
HHR has attracted huge numbers of followers on Facebook and Twitter in just two years and does seem to engage with them, but could be more streamlined and active.
SRO. Until the website reappears it is unfair to judge SRO. It has an active Twitter account but no other active social media platforms.
Saudi Arabia has brand-new world-class railways and has a great set of digital communications to help explain them and help travellers to choose them over other methods of transport. Until SRO’s website returns the interim totals are as follows:
SAR scores a terrific 9/12 and just lacks live running information; a dedicated YouTube channel and a newsletter to enhance loyalty.
HHR scores a great 8/12 and just lacks an app; live running information; a dedicated YouTube channel and a newsletter to enhance loyalty.
SRO scores just 2 for the time being because its website is down so this won’t be the final score.