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The Train to Mecca

13 October 2009




Saudi Arabia is launching the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro, more widely known as the Mecca Metro, in 2010. The project seems likely to revolutionise the journey of some 3 million Muslim pilgrims who make their way to the holy city each year during Hajj. Alex Hawkes speaks exclusively to Thales, which is providing its driverless train control and telecommunication systems for the project.


As the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, Hajj poses a steep and at-times dangerous logistical nightmare for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 2008, for example, about 3 million pilgrims from around the globe descended on the holy city of Makkah (Mecca) to celebrate the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

The annual event sees hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously converge on Mecca during the week of Hajj – which takes place on the eighth to the 13th day of Dhu al-Hijjah – and perform a series of rituals. These include walking counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka'bah (the central positioned building that serves as the Muslim direction of prayer) and hurling stones at the plains of Mount Arafat (the Stoning of the Devil).

Naturally, an event of this scale and complexity is not without its share of problems. In 2006, stampeding led to the deaths of 362 pilgrims during the Stoning of the Devil ritual. With an increasing number of international airline services into the Kingdom, the attendance of foreign pilgrims has also risen in recent years – from 1,080,465 in 1996 to 1,729,841 in 2008 – placing additional demand for transportation to the site.

"The annual event sees hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously converge on Mecca during the week of Hajj."

Safe transport solution

As a result, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed a contract with the China Rail Construction Company (CRCC) in February 2008 to construct a new 17.7km metro line linking Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah. The line, which will be named the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro (MMMP), is expected to reach a full operating capacity of 72,000 passengers per hour per direction in time for Hajj 2011.

Each train supplied by the Chinese rolling stock manufacturer CNR Changchun Railway Vehicle Company will carry up to 3,000 passengers. The line will have a total of nine stations, three of which will loop around the holy site. Each train will consist of 12 cars and travel at a speed of 100km per hour.

The project also takes on a more European dynamic with Knorr-Bremse supplying braking systems for the trains and platform screen doors for the stations, and Thales supplying, integrating and deploying its driverless train control and telecommunications systems.

For Thales, the project – along with its involvement with the Dubai Metro – marks a new era for business in the Middle East. The company will install its SelTrac Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) system from its Urban Signalling Centre of Excellence located in Toronto, Canada, which has been implemented on a number of other metro networks across the world including Hong Kong, New York, London, Vancouver, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Beijing and, of course, Dubai.

The system was originally pioneered by Thales' Rail Signalling Solutions unit in Toronto in the early 1980s and has since become one of the world leaders in the rail market.

"For Thales, the Mecca Metro project marks a new era for business in the Middle East."

Thales signed a contract worth €103m with CRCC back in June and is working towards completing the first phase of the project, which will see the line operate with Automatic Train Protection and Automatic Train Supervision in time for Hajj in November 2010.

Following the Hajj 2010 operation, the suppliers will finalise the second phase of the project before Ramadan in mid-2011 when the line will operate driverless with an attendant on board.

As Dan Filip, marketing & strategy director of Thales Rail Signalling Solutions is quick to point out, even with the project split into two phases, the deadline is a tight one:

"The challenge of this project is definitely the delivery time," he says. "Effectively we have to complete design and implementation of the CBTC solution in two years, which if you compare it to the two years we spent designing the Dubai Metro is a strong contrast marked by a great challenge.

"The Dubai Metro, however, was a much larger project [the network covers 76km in total and will be the longest driverless system in the world]. There was a lot of experience gained during that project that we have been able to reuse for the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro. We have also previously successfully implemented the same SelTrac CBTC solution on over 30 rail networks worldwide, so have a wealth of experience to draw on."

"Our experience in the Middle East has made us aware of Arab culture and how to conduct business effectively."

Full steam ahead

The initial opening period for the Dubai Metro is likely to prove an interesting point of comparison for the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro. The fully automated metro network opened to the public on September 10th 2009 making it the first urban train system in the Arabian Peninsula.

More than 110,000 people – nearly 10% of Dubai's population – rode the metro during its first two days of operations, which, for a region not traditionally associated with the rail sector, appears a largely positive response.

Thales has built-up a substantial client relationship in the Middle East in recent years. The company is also involved in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's mammoth North-South railway, which will connect the northern mineral belt with Riyadh and the industrial city of Jubail through a 2,400km rail line, as well as three sections of Algeria's North Railway Bypass and a number of rail programmes in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.

"Our experience in the Middle East has made us aware of Arab culture and how to conduct business effectively over here," Filip adds. "With the vision, enthusiasm and perseverance of local government and transportation authorities from each country combined with the consultants' depth of transport experience, all the projects that were implemented, or are under construction or are subject to feasibility studies are on a successful track following international standards and processes."

"If it operates successfully, the Kingdom wants to construct another two or three parallel metro lines that would be able to support the entire pilgrimage."

Yet, the Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro will eventually serve a purpose very different from that of any other Middle Eastern rail project. The line will provide for an impressive 25,000 passengers per hour per direction (PPHPD) when it initially opens for Hajj 2010, which will rise to a staggering 72,000 PPHPD the year after. The period of extreme demand the metro therefore must meet during Hajj is almost unparalleled by any other rail system worldwide.

"The other thing you must remember is the pilgrims, who include a variety of ages and genders, may have to walk about 17–20km in the heat as part of the Hajj ritual so are often heavily fatigued," explains Filip.

"Once the system will be operating 24 hours per day during the Hajj period at maximum passenger capacity in 2011, the line will be able to carry close to one million passengers, a third of the pilgrim population.

"If it operates successfully, the Kingdom wants to construct another two or three parallel metro lines that would be able to support the entire pilgrimage."

The first phase of the metro is expected to open in time for 2010's Hajj .

A new approximately 20km metro line will link the cities of Mecca, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah when it opens in time for 2010's Hajj.
If the initial first line of the Mecca metro proves a success, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will examine opening another two lines.
Thales is supplying, integrating and deploying its driverless train control and telecommunications systems for the new metro system.
The Muslim festival of Hajj sees hundreds of thousands of pilgrims simultaneously converge on Mecca during the week of Hajj and perform a series of rituals.