The second rail system in the Gulf has commenced in the Holy City of Makkah, in time for Hajj!
Makkah Metro: Muslims take new train to Hajj sites
MINA: Some Muslims beginning the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on Sunday have a new way to avoid the crowds: an elevated light-rail that will whisk them between holy sites.
The four-day Islamic pilgrimage draws around 2.5 million worshippers each year, and the large numbers present authorities with a challenge in preventing stampedes at holy sites, fires in pilgrim encampments and the spread of disease.
Officials hope the new 11-mile (18-kilometer) train line, which is reserved for Saudis and citizens of other Gulf nations until it becomes fully operational next year, will alleviate crowding.
The first phase of the train project, called the Makkah Metro, will transport pilgrims between Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifa — three stops during the pilgrims’ journey that trace the steps of the Prophet Muhammad and Abraham.
Muslims believe Abraham built the ancient structure in Makkah’s Grand Mosque known as the Kaaba.
The lime green cars zoom along an elevated rail, passing over the permanent white tents where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims spend the night on the way to the major sites.
There are 12 trains now, each with a capacity of 3,000 people, said train operator Ahmed Hosny. It will begin a limited service Monday, operating at around 33 percent of its expected capacity.
The $2 billion train was constructed by a Chinese company.
About 100 Egyptians have been brought in to help operate the train during this year’s hajj because of their experience running Cairo’s metro.
During the tests Sunday, a recorded message in Arabic and English warned passengers to “mind the gap,” borrowing the much-loved phrase from London’s metro, known as The Tube.
The new train will replace thousands of buses that shuttle pilgrims between the holy sites, reducing pollution as well as traffic congestion.
Faisal Al-Sharif, a Makkah city council member and engineer, said the train is one of many development projects aiming to turn the holy city into a high-tech metropolis. Other projects include installing wireless connections and adhering to a green policy.
“It is a revolution. It is the first time in Makkah’s history to have a train,” Al-Sharif said. “It will help make the Hajj easier — no crowds and no more traffic and no more pollution.” The train doesn’t stop at Makkah’s holy sites, which include the holiest in Islam: the Kaaba and the Grand Mosque.
Besides crowding, authorities are also concerned about security.
On Thursday, Interior Minister Prince Naif said security forces were on alert for any threats. An Al-Qaeda offshoot in neighboring Yemen has targeted senior Saudi officials and has claimed responsibility for the recent mail bomb plot.
When asked about the possibility of an Al-Qaeda attack, Naif said, “We don’t rule out any possibility of something that disturbs the security” of the pilgrims.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula responded with an Internet statement Sunday saying it would never target pilgrims and accusing the Saudis of spreading lies.
“We assure our Muslim nation that we are against any criminal act against pilgrims,” the statement said.
A fire broke out Sunday morning in the camp for pilgrims from Egypt, but caused no casualties or serious damage, said police Maj. Abdullah bin Thabet.
The kingdom has for years carried out development and construction projects to expand and improve the spaces used by millions of pilgrims from around the world to perform one of Islam’s main pillars, required of every able-bodied Muslim once in their lifetime.
More than 2 million pilgrims had already arrived before the weekend, and Saudi officials say they expect a nearly 20 percent increase in the numbers this year compared to last year.
In terms of controlling the crowds, the most dangerous ritual takes place in Mina. There pilgrims carry out a symbolic stoning of the devil, pelting three walls representing Satan with pebbles.
In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims were killed when a piece of dropped luggage in a moving crowd caused a pile-up.
Since then, Saudi authorities expanded the giant ramp around the walls to five stories, spreading out the masses over different levels to prevent jams.
The “Makkah Metro” is certainly an interesting public transport project, and it reflects the investments that the Saudi government is putting in place to improve transportation in the Kingdom. Aside from the Makkah Metro and other railways around Makkah, there are also plans for rail projects in other major cities, as well as a High Speed Rail version of the old Hijaz railway along the west side of Saudi Arabia.
Somewhat unfortunate is the idea that the trains are currently reserved for citizens of Arab and gulf states – especially since the Hajj pilgrimage is supposed to bring people together in equality (hence the requirement for the simple 2-piece Ihram cloths for men and simple dress for women) before God.
For an interesting view on the construction of the ‘Makkah Metro,’ please visit this link.
By the way, TRANSIT is happy to learn of a Malaysian connection to the project: 63 KTM personnel were dispatched to assist with the operations, technical, training, safety, passenger and system management departments of the metro.
There is an interesting set of questions behind this, however: First of all, why KTMB personnel? KTM Komuter is nowhere near metro-like in terms of frequency or design, and we would assume that employees from Prasarana would have useful knowledge and skills to share.
Or perhaps KTM workers were requested because the Makkah Metro uses the overhead catenary power system like KTMB’s Komuter and ETS trains.
TRANSIT hopes that the Malaysian government will consider developing in-house transit expertise where valuable services can be ‘exported’, which in the end will benefit the country through positive cash inflows.
TRANSIT wishes Muslims a happy Eid Adha, and may their sacrifices be accepted by God All Mighty.