Saudi Arabia gears up new Mecca Metro service for the Haj

The Hejaz Railway, the once-great conduit for Muslim pilgrims and a stirring symbol of pan-Islamism, was immortalised by the manner of its demise.

It was during the Arab Revolt and the First World War that Bedouin tribes, with the aid of the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, relentlessly attacked the steam trains that chugged and whistled across some of the 1,600 kilometres of rails that stretched from Damascus, Acre and Haifa to Medina.

War and political division killed the pilgrims' railway, but today the idea of a railroad built by Muslims for Muslims has been reborn, as Saudi Arabia invests millions of dollars in the construction of the Haramain Rail. The network will link the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina with Jeddah, while "Al Mashaer Al Mugadasah" Metro - the Mecca Metro - will link Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah with Mecca.

Dr Hassan al Naboodah, a historian in the UAE who is travelling to Saudi Arabia this month to witness the system's opening, said: "Connecting all the holy cities and sites is a 100-year-old idea that is finally becoming a reality."

The Mecca Metro, which has completed month-long tests, will be ready in time for the Haj, which starts next week. It will operate at 35 per cent capacity, carrying up to 175,000 pilgrims between Mina and Arafat, over a distance of 18km at a speed of 80-120kph. When it is completed next year, the automated metro and its yellow-and-green carriages are expected to carry half a million pilgrims every six hours.

The entire US$1.8 billion (Dh6.6bn) Metro project was launched in February 2009 in an agreement between China Railway Corp and Prince Mansour bin Miteb, Saudi Arabia's minister of municipal and rural affairs and chairman of the commission overseeing the development of the holy cities.

The first phase of the high-speed Haramain Rail will cost about $3.2bn, according to the Saudi Railway Organisation, and is expected to be completed by 2012.

Dr al Naboodah said: "All these pilgrim-related railways will help immensely with regulations, safety and traffic. There will be better control over the number of pilgrims coming each to perform Haj."

Overall, the Metro is expected to eliminate between 30,000 and 50,000 cars and buses from the roads near the holy sites. The most common modes of transport are buses, in which different nationalities travel separately, with mingling occurring mainly during the rituals themselves.

Dr al Naboodah said: "It will be interesting to see how pilgrims who have never been inside a metro will react to this new mode of transport and how people from different cultures will mix together inside a compartment."

Despite delays and sporadic protests by Chinese workers demanding wage increases for working in hot weather, Fahd Tarboush, the head of the project, said last month that the Mecca Metro "is ready" for the pilgrims. He is no longer answering his phone now. "He is too busy making sure this historic moment for Muslims across the world is ready and safe," his assistant said.

Haj operators and travel agents are watching the Metro with keen interest, too.

Adnan al Ansari, who has ushered hundreds of Pakistani pilgrims since 2002 through his private Haj and Umrah tour operation, Safeenah Tul Hujjaj (Pilgrim Ship), said: "My father went to Mecca last week and checked out the Metro, and he was told that it is all booked up this Haj by other Haj operators from Arab countries."

Ticket fares for the Metro are about 250 riyals (Dh252), but there are plans by the Saudi Haj Commission to reduce it to 90 riyals.

"[My father] wasn't impressed, though, with how the trains looked outside. They were really basic," said Mr al Ansari, who will be leading 250 Pakistani pilgrims this Haj.

However, he said, the new rail system will be a boon for pilgrims.

"I think the Metro, and later the railway that will connect all the holy cities, will really help us organise better and have less bus accidents as each bus driver just tries to squeeze himself in whatever corner he finds, blocking an entire street," Mr al Ansari said.

Despite the less-than-luxurious appearance, the metro is being marketed as top-notch transportation, keeping in line with international standards.

During a recent public inspection of the railways, Prince Mansour said: "Its engines are Canadian and brakes are German. The project is implemented by German Federal Railways in association with Saudi Engineering House."

For the future of rail transportation in Saudi Arabia, this is just the beginning. The Saudi Railway Organisation announced that it is now studying the possibility of locating a Mecca Metro station near the Grand Mosque of Mecca and later linking the whole network to the Haramain Rail and building a link to the Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah.

In addition, after the announcement last year that the capital, Riyadh, would build its own metro system for 612 million riyals(163 million dollars), this year a 21bn riyal (5.6 billion dollars) tram system was set in motion for Jeddah.

Dr al Naboodah said: "This could be the beginning of a much more extensive and remarkable railway, in the spirit of the Hejaz Railway, that would connect the Gulf states to Arab states and subsequently to Europe and Asia. Everything is connected through the internet, so why not through a far more pleasant and useful means like the railway?"

The projects

The Mecca Metro One-third complete. It is expected to be finished by the Haj in 2011. The 20km project, 18.5km of which is on an elevated bridge, will consist of nine stations with Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah each having three stations. Each will have waiting space for more than 3,000 passengers. There will be 20 trains, each with 12 compartments, for a total length of 300 metres. Each train can carry 3,000 people.

The Haramian Rail

The high-speed rail will run from Mecca's Third Ring Road in the Al Russaifa district, follow the Mecca-to-Jeddah motorway through Bahrah, move on to the district of Guwaizah, east of the motorway, and continue from there to Abraq Al Raghamah. The 440km holy cities rail is part of the Saudi railway expansion programme that will include the construction of a 950km track network between Riyadh and Jeddah and a 115km long track network between Dammam and Jubail. It is expected to be finished in 2012.

The Saudi Land Bridge

A 950km railway line for cargo and passengers aims to connect the Red Sea with the Arabian Gulf and the North-South line. The rail would start in the north-western region, pass through Al Jouf, Hail and Al Qassim regions and end in Riyadh. There, connections could be made to Hazm Al Jalamid to haul phosphate, and to Al Zubayrah to haul bauxite. The rail will also connect to Ras Al Zour, on the Gulf, where a major port will be constructed to export mineral ores.

GCC Railway

The total length of the network is expected to be about 2,000km, starting from the Iraq-Kuwait border and terminating in Oman. The rail will pass through all GCC countries, running parallel to the Gulf coast. It is expected to be operational in 2016.

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