Mekkah Metro, New Sustainable Travel Train to Mecca

Thanks to the Mekkah Metro, a high speed train to holy sites, Mecca now offers sustainable travel access. The train will transport between 130,000 - 170,000 passengers between holy sites this Hajj season, which is expected to start in mid November.  It's been dubbed "Holy Rituals Train".

The train is only open to Saudis and citizens of other Gulf nations this year, and it will only operate up to 33% of its capacity this year. However, it will offer a sustainable travel option for up to 500,000 pilgrims on their way to Mecca next year. In 2012, when it's finished, it will carry up to 2 million passengers. Saudi Arabia has put nearly SR6.7 billion (USD $2 billion) towards the Chinese train, which was initiated three years ago. The plan followed a series of incidents during Hajj season in which several stampedes occurred.

In 2006, a stampede involving a bus killed 346 pilgrims and injured around 289. The incident occurred during the stoning of the devil ritual, which involves flinging pebbles at the three walls (called jamarat) in the city of Mina. Each pilgrim needs at least  49 pebbles, and more if they miss. Missing was more of a problem when the three jamarat were pillars, since many people were accidentally hitting people on the other side with pebbles. So, in 2004, Saudi authorities replaced the pillars with walls. Not including the incident in 2006, the Saudi government has reported 243 deaths, due mostly to exhaustion and heart problems, though car crashes have also been also an issue. The hundreds of deaths, the pollution, traffic and criticism inspired the Saudi government to take action and offer a safe, sustainable travel option with the Mekkah Metro. The Arabic newspaper, Alriyadh, said: "The train project is part of ongoing efforts under the directives of His Majesty the Monarch to alleviate the suffering of the pilgrims and facilitate their holy mission."

Every year, between 2-4 million people travel to Makkah to perform Hajj. Hajj allows pilgrims to renew their covenant with Allah. Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, literally means "to set out for a higher destination". All Muslims are meant to undertake the journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, so it's no surprise that Hajj is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. It's also very reassuring that there will be a sustainable travel option for journeyers.

The Muslim community has adopted a UN-backed Seven Year Plan to become more environmentally friendly. Places of worship will use less energy. The Qur'an will be printed on sustainable paper. According, though, they still have a ways to go: almost 100 million plastic bottles are left behind after Hajj. Still, Saudi Arabia’s government appears ready to embrace proposed initiatives, such as using biodegradable plastic containers, and promoting awareness of the environment at the pilgrimage. Given that it's such a massive and meaningful gathering of people, it is actually an ideal place to address the environment.

What about potential conflict between environment initiatives and the intended focus on faith? There doesn't seem to be one. Quite the opposite, actually. An appreciation of nature is implied by several statements in the Qur'an, such as this one: "Greater indeed than the creation of man is the creation of the heavens and the earth." (40:57)

Photo Credit: Abdelrhman 1990