Holy Sites Train makes 1st passenger trip
MAKKAH: The new Holy Sites Train will take on board its first passengers Saturday at 2 P.M., transporting up to a capacity of 3,000 pilgrims between Mina, Muzdalifa and Arafat via the Al-Jamarat Bridge.
The light rail track service represents a new dawn for the pilgrimage, replacing the 4,000 buses previously used and reducing crowding and waiting time as visitors are shuttled between the holy sites faster and more easily than ever before.
With some 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims descending on Makkah for the annual Haj, the train – which for this year’s pilgrimage will be at 35 percent of its operational capacity – is the most significant development in bids to ease what has on occasion been fatal congestion.
The train project, when completed next year, has a projected capacity to transport 100,000 pilgrims per hour between the holy sites.
Security, meanwhile, is as tight as ever, and Prince Naif Bin Abdul Aziz, Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minster of Interior, has said he cannot rule out an Al-Qaeda attempt to disrupt the five-day ritual, which begins Sunday, although the group has not attacked pilgrims in the past. “We cannot trust them. We do not rule out any attempt to disturb the security of the Haj,” Prince Naif said after a parade of military skills by security forces and Civil Defense Wednesday. “We are ready for any act that might take place.”
The head of Saudi General Security, Gen. Saeed Al-Qahtani, said “these men are ready to face any situation when needed”.
Authorities are continuously on alert to the danger of fatal incidents during the pilgrimage, and Wednesday’s parade saw the Civil Defense bring out dozens of fire engines, ambulances, cranes that can lift up to 160 tons, smoke extractors and lifeboats, all of which have been used at some point in Haj incidents in the past.
The Kingdom has spent unceasingly to expand the capacity of Makkah to accommodate the ever-increasing number of pilgrims.
The area has seen deadly stampedes in the past, mainly at the Al-Jamarat Bridge in Mina, where pilgrims rush while performing the symbolic rite of stoning the devil.
In January 2006, 364 pilgrims were killed in a stampede at the entrance to the bridge, and 251 were trampled to death in 2004. In July 1990, 1,426 pilgrims were trampled or asphyxiated to death in a stampede in a tunnel, also in Mina.
The deaths prompted authorities to dismantle the old bridge and replace it with a multi-level bridge. The last of the three levels will be opened this season, and pilgrim traffic has been made one-way to ensure a smooth flow.
The new structure has numerous entrances and exits, while crowds are monitored with 30 cameras equipped with software that measures crowd density.
Congestion is also a problem in the Grand Mosque which has a capacity of 700,000 in addition to 180,000 in its plaza. Final figures for this year are not yet definite, as pilgrims continue to arrive from abroad, and the number of local ones is still uncertain.
Efforts to combat congestion have included targeting persons who conduct the pilgrimage without going through official channels. The “No Permit, No Haj” scheme, which has introduced more stringent measures on both local pilgrims and pilgrims from abroad, has been hailed as a success by the Kingdom’s authorities. By Tuesday last week, police at checkpoints and other sites had prevented 29,000 illegal pilgrims from entering Makkah.