In a September 2018 inauguration ceremony in Jeddah, King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud opened to the public Saudi Arabia’s newest train line, the Haramain High-Speed Rail. The new route measures roughly 450 km in length and connects Makkah to Medina via Jeddah, King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) and King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). It has reached speeds of up to 300 km per hour and is expected to cut travel times between the holy cities from five hours to two, and reduce the 70-km trip from Makkah to Jeddah to just 21 minutes. From its launch, the train was scheduled to run eight times per day, Thursday through Sunday, with plans to expand service in early 2019 to 12 times daily, seven days per week.
Prior to its opening, the road journey between Makkah and Medina could take up to 10 hours. Considering the flow of pilgrims between the cities, particularly during the Hajj, the line will significantly improve transport for worshippers performing pilgrimage. The railway’s construction was undertaken by a Spanish-led consortium and funded in full by the Kingdom’s public investment fund using a build-operate-transfer model. At a cost of SR60bn ($16bn), Haramain has become one of the largest railways in the Middle East and one of the largest infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia. Its planners hope to attract 60m passengers annually, including the millions of people who make the pilgrimage to Medina.
The railway connects four stations in Makkah, Medina, KAEC and Jeddah. Additionally, there is a 3.8-km branch from Jeddah to KAIA, ensuring pilgrims arriving by air can quickly link up with rail lines. Besides easing highway congestion and improving the transit experiences of locals and foreigners alike, the five new stations should create appealing business opportunities for both retailers and investors.
The train will comprise 35 cars with a capacity of 417 passengers apiece. It will eventually make 10 trips hourly between Makkah and Jeddah and two per hour between Makkah and Medina. Bassam Gholman, the project’s former director-general, told media in February 2018 that the railway will create more than 2000 local jobs and allow as many as 12,000 passengers to travel between Makkah and Medina every hour.
Among the major advantages of the reduction in travel time associated with Haramain are the flexibility that it will allow pilgrims who wish to stay outside of Makkah, and the creation of opportunities to invest in Jeddah businesses that cater to pilgrims travelling to Makkah, as traffic is redirected to the port city. “Beforehand, it was difficult to travel between Jeddah and Makkah in one day, but the Haramain allows people who stay in Jeddah to go to Makkah and come back the same day,” Faisal Tahir Khan, founder and CEO of the Jeddah-based global consultant FT Konsepts, told OBG. “This will mean that all the pilgrims coming from the GCC – such as Dubai, Kuwait and Oman – can also stay in Jeddah and enjoy its rich cosmopolitan life.”
Medina is also due to receive a boost in investment related to the high-speed train. Congested roads and long bus journeys may have prevented those making pilgrimage to Makkah from staying in Medina, but the reduced travel time between the two could incentivise more worshippers to use the latter city as a base during the Hajj and Umrah. “Previously, nearly all pilgrims flying into Saudi Arabia used KAIA in Jeddah, due to its proximity to Makkah,” Fayyaz Ahmad, the national director of JLL, explained to OBG. “The Haramain train offers the alternative of flying into Medina, and using that as a base to travel to Makkah, which will greatly increase the revenue of the city from pilgrims.”
The new high-speed railway echoes the early 19th century Hejaz Railway, a 1300-km line connecting Damascus to Medina that was popular with pilgrims at the time. While the Haramain line evokes the history, it also symbolises the Kingdom’s ambition to modernise and position itself at the forefront of innovation.