By Keith Barry Email Author / Wired Magazine
The Saudi government is building a $1.8 billion monorail to ferry pilgrims among the holy sites of Mecca, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah. Once complete, the Saudis estimate 53,000 buses will disappear from the cityâ€™s crowded roads, promising a safer, more comfortable pilgrimage.
The monorail will be built over the next four years, with the first segment â€” roughly 35 percent of the project, by one estimate â€” opening in time for this yearâ€™s Hajj between November 25 and 29. Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims must complete if they have the means and ability to do so, is the fifth Pillar of Islam and as such attracts a staggering number of pilgrims.
Controlled access to the monorail is intended to avoid accidents such as the tragedy at Mina in 2006, when more than 350 people died in a stampede after two busloads of pilgrims disembarked at the entrance to the Jamarat Bridge holy site. Trains on four elevated tracks will carry as many as 20,000 pilgrims an hour in an orderly fashion, with parking available at all stops.
The monorail appears to be a good way of controlling human and vehicular traffic to holy sites. The author of the Mujahideen Ryder blog says the monorail is a â€œpretty cool idea to make Hajj safer and efficient. I canâ€™t wait to see it.â€
According to Straits Times, the Chinese Railway Corp. is building the monorail. It is one of two rail projects the Chinese are building in Saudi Arabia â€” the other being China Railway Engineeringâ€™s 275-mile high-speed rail system linking Mecca and Medina through Jeddah. Chinaâ€™s involvement in both projects reportedly was clinched during Chinese Prime Minister Hu Jintaoâ€™s visit to Saudi Arabia in February, during which representatives of Chinese Railway Corp. met with Saudi Prince Miteb bin Abdulaziz, chairman of the commission for developing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Should the project succeed, it certainly will see a lot of use. Hajj is the worldâ€™s largest pilgrimage, and the number of foreign pilgrims nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008, when more than two million pilgrims reportedly attended.