Taking the fast train to Mecca
Mecca’s never been a fast city.
Even during the non-Hajj season, things move slowly. They kind of always have. People, cars, buses, camels, horses, you name it. Just today, the group I was with spent over an hour crammed into a GMC Yukon negotiating through a small roadway just 2km long. At least we were in an SUV. I feel sorry for the people in buses.
It’s been like this, literally, for decades. Need to get around? Just hop on someone’s bus. No room? No problem, hop on the luggage rack on the roof. And boy, if you found a bus where the A/C was actually working, you knew you’d hit a goldmine.
The new Mecca Hajj train changes all that, and quite drastically. I’ve got to admit – it really is a sight to behold. It’s not that the train is fancy or has some kind of extra engineering marvel behind it. As light rail systems go, it’s pretty ordinary. What makes it such a sight is that even just 10 years ago, something like this would’ve been unthinkable. This has always been a place where ramshackle transportation plans rule the day.
The first thing that hit me was the speed. It zips along the mountainside pretty quickly. The second thing, more remarkable than the speed, is that it’s completely unimpeded. The same can’t be said for any other mode of transportation here. Even walking is hazardous because of all the squatters on the ground.
All reports are that the train’s inaugural run has been a huge success. Each of its stations is close enough to the religious sites that you don’t need a taxi once you get off. You can pretty much walk anywhere.
That being said, there’s been some mild criticism here – including among some journalists – that the train’s inaugural run has been reserved for Arabs. Saudi officials say that will change next year, and it will be open to one and all. I’ll believe it when I see it.