Saudi Arabia opens Chinese-built haj pilgrimage train
Hoping to decrease accidents and boost tourism, Saudi has built a railway line to improve transport for millions of Muslims who flock to the kingdom on the annual haj and move en masse from one holy site to another. At least 2.5 million pilgrims are expected to perform the haj, which began on Sunday. One of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, it has been marred in the past by stampedes, accidents and political demonstrations.
(Photo: Haj pilgrims in Mina, near Mecca, November 14, 2010/Fahad Shadeed)
Authorities say the 6.6 billion riyal ($1.76 billion) project will lessen congestion of the pilgrim route swollen with
some 70,000 cars and buses jamming the roads. The railway is the first such project in more than half a century in the world’s top oil exporter. It will ferry pilgrims around holy sites outside Mecca to perform rites such as the “devil’s stoning”, when pilgrims stone a wall in ritual defiance of the devil and temptation.
The 18-km train line has stops at Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa, haj sites that Islamic tradition says Prophet Ibrahim — the biblical patriarch Abraham — once visited and that Prophet Mohammad established as a pilgrim route 14 centuries ago. The Chinese-built train is the latest high-tech addition to the haj after Saudi Arabia built electric stairways in the Grand Mosque and showers to cool off pilgrims following the haj route. The ticket, good for a week, costs $70.
The project was completed in about a year but much still needs to be done — many buildings have Chinese signs but no windows or walls yet. The train will transport 180,000 passengers this haj, said Habib Zein Al Abideen, assistant minister for municipial and rural affairs. Due to its limited capacity, the train will only be open this year to Saudis and Gulf Arabs and next year will open to others, he said.
“We will have a capacity of 72,000 passengers per hour next year. This year we operate at 35 percent capacity. Next year we could have 500,000 to 600,000 passengers,” Abideen said, sitting in an airconditioned makeshift container office.
(Image: The traditional route of the haj. The train line now only connects Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa)
Apart from a city metro in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched in 2009, the haj train is the first passenger railway completed on the Arabian Peninsula for more than half a century. The only other overland passenger line remains a railway built in the 1950s linking the capital Riyadh and Dammam on the Saudi’s east coast, home to most of its oil reserves. The railway was built by Saudi oil giant Aramco, owned then by U.S. firms.
Saudi Arabia plans to eventually link the line to Islam’s holiest city Mecca, the second holiest Medina and to the Red Sea port of Jeddah where most pilgrims arrive.
Efforts such as the new train reflect the kingdom’s goal of not only boosting pilgrimage tourism, but of cautious plans to promote economic diversification away from oil. “There are a variety of potential tourists sites in an around the Mecca region. Access to these will be greatly improved when the rail infrastructure is fully functional,” said Paul Gamble, head of research at Saudi bank Jadwa Investment.