Saudi Arabia’s King Salman announces a high-speed railway connecting Mecca to Medina

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Saudi Arabia has unveiled its £6 billion ($7.87 billion) high-speed rail service that will run between Mecca and Medina.

Mecca is the site of an annual pilgrimage for millions of Muslims as part of a sacred journey known as Hajj.

The 280-mile (450-kilometer) railway will slash travel time between Mecca, the spiritual heart of Islam, and Medina, its second most sacred site, in half.  

The Haramain Railway is one of the largest transport projects in the Middle East and will target 60 million passengers a year. 

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WHAT IS HAJJ?

Hajj is the annual pilgrimage of millions of Muslims to the city of Mecca. 

The word Hajj is an Arabic word, meaning ‘to intend a journey’.

Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam and is often a deeply meaningful and spiritual experience for muslims.  

Pilgrims comprise the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million annual foreign visitors.  

More than two million came for this year´s haj and 6.5 million performed umrah in 2017.

Umrah is the lesser pilgrimage which occurs year round. 

‘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 this week.

‘The project highlights the kingdom’s commitment to serving Islam and Muslims.’

Officials believe the improved transport links between the holy cities will boost tourism revenue in the country as the nation seeks to shed dependence on oil exports.

The holy pilgrimage for Muslims is the backbone of a plan from the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the economy.

Hajj is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam and is a journey every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it must perform at least once in a lifetime.

The mass migration to the ancient city is regarded as a deeply spiritual and profound experience but the pilgrimage is also big business for Saudi Arabia.

Hajj, and the year-round lesser pilgrimage known as umrah, generate billions of dollars in revenues from worshippers´ lodging, transport, gifts, food and fees.

The new rail link was built by a Spanish-led consortium and financed by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund.

Project manager Mohammed Fallatah said the train would offer fast and reliable transportation to pilgrims as well as Saudis and foreign residents.

‘The traveller will be comfortable. He can read books or magazines or enjoy watching the screens in business class, have a coffee or a light meal,’ he said.

The authorities hope the train will also stimulate growth of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a massive business zone that was initiated under the previous ruler but remains relatively empty.

It will eventually link up with a new terminal at Jeddah airport, which has already started serving select domestic routes and will take over all flights by early next year.

Mr Fatallah said further expansion could include connecting to a planned east-west train between the capital Riyadh and Jeddah.

Pilgrims comprise the bulk of Saudi Arabia´s 20 million annual foreign visitors, apart from workers and business travellers.

More than two million came for this year´s haj and 6.5 million performed umrah in 2017.

Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and hajj pilgrims to 15 million and five million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030.

Saudi Arabia is also heavily investing in mega-hotels and a Grand Mosque restoration in Mecca with tens of billions already pledged to the project.

The Faisalia project, running from the edge of Mecca towards the Red Sea, aims to attract visitors to coastal getaways and Islamic research centres.

Mecca governor Prince Khalid al-Faisal, a nephew of the king and one of his closest advisers, anticipates that the initiatives will contribute to social and cultural development alongside economic growth.

‘We do not seek only to expand and develop. We want to expand and develop with distinction,’ he said in an interview.

‘We want to begin from the point that others have already reached, not the point from which they began.’

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