Endy M Bayuni
Pilgrims going on haj are in for a real treat this year – in a luxury and spiritual sense of the word. The Haramain high-speed rail service connecting the two Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina will be ready in time to transport an estimated 2.5 million passengers during the peak of the pilgrimage this August. “We have successfully conducted test runs. Now we are putting the final touches on the administration side, including ticketing,” Faisal Alghamdi, project manager at King Abdulllah Economic City Station, told visiting Indonesian journalists.
The 453-kilometer double-track railway links Mecca with Jeddah, King Abdul Aziz International Airport, King Abdullah Economic City (a port city on the Red Sea) and Medina. “We have built the tracks as close as possible to the route Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, took when he made the hijrah,” Faisal said, referring to the journey the Prophet had made to escape persecution in Mecca and launch a new community in Medina in the seventh century.
That event was later used to mark the start of the Islamic lunar year. Pilgrims will not need to spend days in the heat of the desert making the journey. They will travel in safety and comfort — with air-conditioner, WiFi and other luxury amenities — at up to 360 km an hour.
The distance will be covered in just two hours, including a few stops along the way. The train, which can transport up to 834,000 passengers per day, uses a Spanish system and contractors, but is a more advanced version of the current train linking Madrid and Barcelona, Faisal said. “This will be the first high-speed train in the Middle East.”
The Haramain train, including the construction of state-of-the-art, fully automated stations, is one of many massive projects underway as Saudi Arabia works to boost its capacity to accommodate haj and umrah (minor haj) pilgrims. Under the Saudi 2030 Vision, the country plans to welcome as many as 30 million pilgrims a year, including up to 5 million for umrah. Indonesia currently sends around 220,000 haj pilgrims and close to 1 million umrah pilgrims annually. Other big projects include the expansion of both grand mosques in Mecca and Medina, as well as hotels and other amenities in the cities. But the train project will be Saudi Arabia’s center piece this year as the kingdom solidifies of the two Muslim Holy Cities.