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Jeddah, Saudi Arabia(CNN) In the distant past, Muslim pilgrims came to the holy city of Mecca on foot. Now, however, they can come by high-speed train.
About 50 times a day these sleek, long-nosed javelins shoot across the hot deserts of Saudi Arabia, reaching speeds of up to 300 kph (186 mph) carrying pilgrims and other passengers .
The trains, included top 10 fastest in the worldis just the beginning of a rail network expected to expand across the Middle Eastern kingdom as it invests billions in infrastructure to boost tourism and diversify revenues beyond oil.
From Jeddah, the country’s second largest city, religious pilgrims and leisure travelers can now transfer from the arrivals terminal of King Abdulaziz International Airport to a gleaming station where electric express trains run through whole country.
Although only Muslims can visit Mecca, all travelers can enjoy the new Haramain high-speed trains on a 450 kilometer (280 mile) line that stretches along a section of Saudi’s Red Sea coast.
Haramain means “two sanctuaries” in Arabic, named for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina that are at opposite ends of the line. Opened in 2018, it also connects Jeddah airport, Jeddah Al-Sulimaniyah (near the city center) and King Abdullah Economic City.
So what was the ride like?
Buying tickets is straightforward. The gold-and-white HHR Train app is in both English and Arabic. Although many Saudis only use the Islamic calendar, toggling the English option will switch to the Gregorian calendar. Keep your passport handy, as you’ll need to fill in your ID information before clicking “pay.” During CNN’s recent visit, no one asked to see passports or other documents to board the train.
On a weekday in early 2023, an economy ticket between Jeddah Al-Suleimanyah and the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced like “kaish”) will cost 57.50 Saudi riyals, (about $15.30) , while a business class seat is 97.75 riyals (about $26).
The app accepts Apple Pay and other digital wallet options.
Choosing specific seats is a snap. The app shows the layout of the train cars so passengers can choose a window or aisle seat and decide whether or not they want to face the direction of travel. When booking for groups or families, the app will automatically select seats next to each other if they are available.
Station to station
The stations along the route are efficient, modern, and comfortable. They are beautiful too. Both Jeddah and KAEC stations — which are almost identical — are said to be inspired by diamonds. Designed by UK architects Foster + Partners, they have sharp, crisp angles, glossy black walls, and tiny star-like carvings in the ceiling that allow different variations of light to -filtered throughout the day.
These hubs don’t have the busy, lived-in feel of a commuter rail station like New York City’s Grand Central or Paris’ Gare du Nord.
The stations are very beautiful, but they are also, for the most part, empty.
There aren’t many amenities at the stations, and travelers tend to show up shortly before their scheduled trains rather than spend time walking around.
KAEC has a Dunkin’ Donuts and not much else. Al-Sulimaniyah is busier in Jeddah, with several tea and coffee shops (including Starbucks) and a grocery store.
While the stations may be gorgeous but a bit lonely, the train experience is vibrant and alive.
The pilgrimage track
It takes just 32 minutes to travel from Jeddah to KAEC — a distance of 111 kilometers (69 miles).
On a pre-Ramadan trip on Thursday at around 2 pm, the business class was relatively quiet, while the economy cars were full, mostly with passengers going to Mecca for the umrah.
Unlike its better-known counterpart the hajj, the umrah is an optional pilgrimage for Muslims who want to visit the holy city and the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam. While hajj is considered a religious duty for Muslims to perform at specific times of the year, umrah can be performed at any time and is not considered an obligation.
It’s easy to tell which passengers are going to Mecca for this exact purpose: Men and women performing the umrah wear two unstitched white towel garments, and many shave their heads when they finish. the journey. Women may also wear similar white garments, although it is not required for them to do so.
The car is full of multi-generational families, busy entertaining small children and listening to Arabic-language pop music. The atmosphere was festive and lively.
Umrah has become big business for the railway. According to the Saudi GazetteDemand for train tickets for religious pilgrims is so high that HHR will run more than 100 train trips per day during the month of Ramadanwhich runs between mid-March and mid-April in 2023 — more than usual.
Although less populated, business class offers more perks.
Even on a short journey like the one from Jeddah to KAEC, business class passengers are entitled to a full meal service. It consists of hummus, a few rounds of pita bread, a chocolate chip muffin, a fruit cup, a croissant, and a choice between apple juice and water. It is served by a uniformed attendant from an airplane-style beverage cart.
There are also small seat-back TVs with limited viewing options — on this trip: Paw Patrol, Formula E racing or an Islamic sermon.
Especially on short trips, simply looking at the dusty landscape outside your window is a better alternative.
However, this is not a slow, daydreamy ramble through distant regions. You’ll often see the exurbs in Jeddah, not a wide open desert landscape, and the nearby Red Sea is simply out of sight.
Board announcements are made in Arabic and English, and all signage is also in the same language. Once travelers walk onto the train platforms, uniformed attendants will help them find their boarding zone, carry luggage and assist with wheelchairs and strollers.
In economy class, the seats are in a two-by-two configuration. Half of the seats face forward and half backward, with small tables where the rows meet in the middle to face each other. Meanwhile in business class, the seats are arranged with two on one side of the aisle and single seats next to the other.
In both classes of service, the seats have armrests and seat back tables, and there are spaces for storing luggage at both ends of the cars. The seats and other interior are often in shades of brown, light gold, and white, all the better for offsetting the desert landscape outside.
Seamless is a good word to sum up the HHR train experience. The train is quiet and the ride is smooth — no sudden turns or sudden jolts.
Steering into the future
Although the passengers cannot see the train driver, there is a possibility that their train has a woman at the helm.
In January 2023, the first class of 32 women graduated from a one-year training program at the Saudi Railway Polytechnic, which qualified them with licenses to operate high-speed trains on the Haramain network.
On the contrary: in 2018, when the railway line first opened, women in the kingdom began to drive cars.
When it comes to high-speed railway, it seems that the Haramain line is just the beginning in Saudi Arabia. There are also improvements to existing lines in the northwest of the country, with higher speed services planned.
In January 2022, Saudi Arabia’s Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih announced plans to build 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) of railway across the country.
Riyadh to Jeddah by bullet train? It can happen.