This year many of the religious pilgrims performing Hajj are using the brand new Makkah Metro rail system. Although in this its inaugural year, only 170,000 pilgrims will be transported via the system, in the future it is expected to be able to transport 2 million pilgrims during Hajj, covering a distance totaling 18 km and traveling at speeds from 80 to 120 km per hour. This rail, also known as the Mashair Railway, will greatly alleviate traffic congestion and parking problems, in addition to minimizing pollution and reducing accidents. It is being hailed as a major improvement in the efficiency of the Hajj experience in convenience, safety, comfort, and time.
The rail links Makkah with three different Islamic holy sites in the area that play a major role in performing the rites of Hajj. The total cost is estimated to be 6.5 billion Saudi riyals ($1.73 billion in US dollars) and should be able to accommodate 72,000 pilgrims each hour as they complete the various required steps in the Hajj process. About 20 per cent of the passengers at full capacity will be able to sit while being transported, while the rest will stand. The railway system is expected to be completed and fully operational by the next Hajj season in 2011.
There have been some issues and controversies that have come up in the process of building this new railway system. A British firm is claiming that the plans for the Makkah Metro were designed by them and were subsequently stolen and used for the project by a Chinese firm that was awarded the construction contract. Several non-Muslim Chinese engineers were deported after being caught in the holy city of Makkah, renowned for being a place that only Muslims are allowed to enter. Criticism also comes from some Muslims who feel that the railway system takes away much of the personal effort that pilgrims used to be required to make to perform Hajj, that limiting its use this first year to only Arab Muslims (Saudis and other GCC countries only) is unfair and discriminatory, and also that the cost of the fare – 250 SR ($66 US) for the entire four days of Hajj – is a rip-off considering the short distances traveled on the rail.
A much bigger railway project, called the Haramain High Speed Rail (also referred to as the Western Railway), is also underway in Saudi Arabia and in the future it is expected to revolutionize travel between the two holiest cities of Islam – Makkah and Medina. The bustling seaport of Jeddah has always been the main point at which most pilgrims enter the country due to its close location to both Makkah and Medina. The Western Railway will also connect to Jeddah’s airport, tremendously easing the transportation of millions of religious pilgrims every year between the holy cities. The total distance to be covered by the project will be 444 km (276 miles) and will offer high speed electric trains traveling at 320 km an hour. It is projected to accommodate 3 million travelers each year, eliminating the need for the use of tens of thousands of busses and other vehicles that currently carry the pilgrims to and fro.
The new railway system, along with the construction this past year of the magnificent gigantic Makkah Clock Tower and the development of many new high-rise luxury hotels and apartments which have sprung up surrounding the famous Kaaba Stone, ushers in a new era of comfort, lavishness, and effortlessness for Muslims fulfilling their religious obligation of performing Hajj at least once in their lifetime. Never before have Muslims had such a wide spectrum of modern options and conveniences available to them which might make their Hajj encounter more comparable to the atmosphere of a trip to Disneyland rather than the somber and physically grueling religious rituals of centuries past.
Here are some related articles to the Makkah Metro and Hajj:
1. Mecca Makeover: How the Hajj Has Become Big Business for Saudi Arabia
2. Mashair Railway Set For Historic Opening
3. Test Ride on Makkah Metro on Aug. 1
4. Pilgrim transportation geared like well-oiled machine: Prince Khaled
5. Returning Hajis find Makkah a city transformed
6. Makkah Metro Carries 66,000 Pilgrims on First Day