Muslim pilgrims used to travel to the holy city of Mecca on foot in the distant past. However, they can now travel by high-speed train.
These sleek, long-nosed javelins carry pilgrims and other passengers and fly through the scorching deserts of Saudi Arabia about 50 times per day at speeds of up to 186 mph.
The trains, which are among the fastest in the world, are just the beginning of a rail network that is expected to spread across the Middle Eastern kingdom as the kingdom invests billions in infrastructure to boost tourism and diversify its revenue sources beyond oil.
Religious pilgrims and leisure travelers alike can now transfer from King Abdulaziz International Airport’s arrivals terminal to a sparkling station where electric express trains whirl across the nation from Jeddah, the country’s second-largest city.
Albeit no one but Muslims can visit Mecca, all explorers can partake in these new Haramain high velocity trains on a 450 kilometer (280 mile) line that loosens up along a segment of Saudi’s Red Ocean shoreline.
The Arabic word “haramain” refers to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which are located on opposite ends of the line. Opened in 2018, it additionally associates Jeddah’s air terminal, Jeddah Al-Sulimaniyah (close to the downtown area) and Ruler Abdullah Financial City.
So, how does riding feel?
Purchasing tickets is simple. English and Arabic are available in the gold-and-white HHR Train app. Even though a lot of Saudis only use the Islamic calendar, switching to the English option will make the Gregorian calendar available. You will need to fill in your ID information before clicking “pay,” so keep your passport handy. During CNN’s most recent visit, no one asked for a passport or any other document before getting on the train.
An economy ticket between Jeddah Al-Suleimanyah and the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced like “kaish”) cost 57.50 Saudi riyals, or approximately $15.30, while a business class seat cost 97.75 riyals, or approximately $26 on a typical weekday in early 2023.
The application acknowledges Apple Pay and other computerized wallet choices.
It is simple to select specific seats. The layout of train cars is shown on the app, allowing passengers to select a window or aisle seat and whether or not they want to face the direction of travel. The app will automatically select seats that are available next to each other when booking for families or groups.
Station to station
The stations along the course are effective, present day, and agreeable. They’re additionally gorgeous. Diamonds are said to have been the inspiration for the nearly identical Jeddah and KAEC stations. Planned by UK designers Cultivate + Accomplices, they have sharp, fresh points, smooth dark walls, and little starlike carvings in the roof that permit various varieties of light to channel in over the course of the day.
These hubs lack the bustling, lived-in atmosphere of a commuter rail station like Grand Central in New York City or Gare du Nord in Paris.
Although the stations are beautiful, the majority of them are empty.
Travelers tend to arrive shortly before their scheduled trains rather than spend time mingling because the stations lack many amenities.
KAEC has a Dunkin’ Doughnuts and not much else. Al-Sulimaniyah in Jeddah is more occupied, with a couple of tea and bistros (counting a Starbucks) and a supermarket.
While the stations might be perfect yet a piece forlorn, the train experience is light and alive.
The pilgrimage track
From Jeddah to KAEC, a journey of 111 kilometers (69 miles) takes just 32 minutes.
On a pre-Ramadan Thursday trip at around 2 p.m., the business class was relatively quiet, while the economy class cars were full, primarily with umrah-going passengers.
Umrah is an optional pilgrimage for Muslims who want to visit the holy city and the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site, in contrast to its more well-known counterpart, the hajj. Umrah, on the other hand, is not a religious obligation and can be performed at any time, unlike the hajj, which Muslims are required to perform at specific times throughout the year.
It is not difficult to tell which travelers were making a beeline for Mecca for this definite reason: Men and boys participating in umrah shave their heads at the end of the journey and wear two unstitched white toweling garments. Women are also welcome to do so, but it is not required of them to do so.
Multigenerational families filled the car as they entertained their young children and listened to pop music in Arabic. The mood was one of celebration and fervor.
The Umrah market has grown significantly for the railway. The Saudi Gazette says that there has been such a high demand for train tickets for religious pilgrims that HHR will run many more train trips than usual during Ramadan, which is in 2023 and runs from mid-March to mid-April.
Even though there were fewer people in business class, there were more perks.
Business class passengers are entitled to a full meal service, even on short flights like the one from Jeddah to KAEC. This includes hummus, a few pita bread rounds, a croissant, a chocolate chip muffin, a fruit cup, and a choice of apple juice or water. A uniformed attendant serves it from a beverage cart resembling an airplane.
On this trip, there are also small TVs in the seats with limited viewing options: a sermon on Islam, Formula E racing, or Paw Patrol
Taking in the dusty view from your window is a much better option, especially on short journeys.
Nevertheless, this is not a leisurely excursion through far-off locales. You won’t see much of the open desert landscape of Jeddah, and you won’t be able to see the Red Sea, which is just out of sight.
Declarations on board are made in Arabic and English, and all signage is in the two dialects also. Uniformed attendants will assist passengers in locating their boarding zone, carrying luggage, and assisting with wheelchairs and strollers once they have reached the train platforms.
In economy class, seats are in an in pairs setup. There are small tables where the center rows meet to face each other, and half of the seats face forward and the other half face backward. In contrast, in business class, there are two seats on one side of the aisle and one seat on the opposite side.
Seats in both service classes feature armrests and seat-back tables, and there are storage areas for luggage at each car’s end. The majority of the seats and other interiors are tan, light gold, and white, which does a better job of contrasting with the desert landscape outside.
A good way to describe the HHR train experience is seamless. There are no abrupt turns or jolts, and the train is quiet.
Steering into the future
Even though passengers are unable to see the train’s driver, it’s possible that a woman is in charge.
In January 2023, the top of the line of 32 ladies moved on from a one-year preparing program at the Saudi Rail route Polytechnic, qualifying them with licenses to direct rapid trains on the Haramain organization.
In contrast, When the rail line opened in 2018, women in the kingdom had just started driving cars.
With regards to fast railroad, it appears to be like the Haramain line is just the starting in Saudi Arabia. In addition, existing lines in the northwest of the nation have been upgraded, and additional high-speed services are planned.
Saudi Arabia’s Investment Minister, Khalid al-Falih, made the announcement in January 2022 that plans were made to construct 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) of rail across the entire nation.
A bullet train from Riyadh to Jeddah? It could occur.