JEDDAH: There was a time when Muslim pilgrims used to come to the holy city of
Mecca on foot. Now, though, they can come via high-speed train.
About 50 times a day these sleek, long-nosed javelins shoot across the baking-hot
deserts of Saudi Arabia, reaching speeds of up to 300 kph (186 mph) carrying pilgrims
and other passengers.
The trains, among the world’s top 10 fastest, are just the beginning of a rail network
expected to expand right 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
alike can now transfer from the arrivals terminal of King Abdulaziz International Airport
to a gleaming station where electric express trains hurtle out across the country.
Although only Muslims can visit Mecca, all travelers can enjoy these new Haramain
high-speed trains on a 450 kilometer (280 mile) line that stretches out along a section of
Saudi’s Red Sea coastline.
Haramain means “two sanctuaries” in Arabic, named for the holy cities of Mecca and
Medina that sit on the line’s opposite ends. Opened in 2018, it also connects Jeddah’s
airport, Jeddah Al-Sulimaniyah (near the city center) and King Abdullah Economic City.
Buying tickets is straightforward. The gold-and-white HHR Train app is in both English
and Arabic. Keep your passport handy, as you will need to fill in your ID information
before clicking “pay.”
Choosing specific seats is a snap. The app shows the layout of train cars so
passengers can choose a window or aisle seat and decide on 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’re available.
The stations along the route are efficient, modern, and comfortable. They’re also
beautiful. Both Jeddah and KAEC stations – which are nearly identical – are said to be
inspired by diamonds. Designed by UK architects Foster + Partners, they have sharp,
crisp angles, sleek black walls, and small starlike carvings in the ceiling that allow
different variations of light to filter in throughout the day.
In economy class, seats are in a two-by-two configuration. Half the seats face forward
and half backward, with small tables where the center rows meet to face each other.
Meanwhile in business class, the seats are arranged with two on one side of the aisle
and single seats along the other.