Saudi Arabia has launched a high-speed railway connecting Islam’s two holiest cities in a bid to improve traffic congestion for the millions of Muslim pilgrims that visit the country annually.
Muslims travelling between Makkah and Madinah for the Hajj or Umra pilgrimages have faced a bus journey of up to six hours. They could now do the journey by train in just over two hours.
Makkah’s station, about 4km from the Grand Mosque, will be able to handle as many as 20,000 passengers per hour. The 450km Haramain Express line linking Makkah and Madinah via the Red Sea city of Jeddah has 35 trains that can travel up to 300km/h (186mph).
Officials hope it will transport 60-million passengers annually and ease traffic congestion for Muslim pilgrims.
King Salman launched the Haramain High-Speed Rail System linking on Tuesday. The project cost $16bn.
“The journey between the Haramain (two holy mosques) is now shorter and easier than at any time before,” Transport Minister Nabil al-Amoudi told dignitaries gathered at the Jeddah station.
“The project highlights the kingdom’s commitment to serving Islam and Muslims.” he added.
The transport network will have five stations: Makkah, Jeddah, King Abdullah Economic City, King Abdulaziz International Airport and Madinah. The railway is due to begin operating commercially next Monday.
Officials said there will be eight services a day until the end of this year, when services will be increased to 12.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia signed a deal for a Spanish consortium to build the rail track, supply 35 high-speed trains and handle a 12-year maintenance contract.
The kingdom is boosting its infrastructure spending and expanding its railways, including with a $22.5bn metro system under construction in the capital Riyadh, as it seeks to diversify its oil-dependent economy.
The annual hajj pilgrimage, which is to be held in September next year, attracts more than two million Muslims to the Mecca region. – Al Jazeera &News Agencies.