Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has inaugurated a 6.7 billion euro ($7.87 billion) high-speed rail linking the two holiest cities in Islam.
The 450-km (280-mile) Haramain Railway connecting Makkah and Medina with the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah is one of the largest transport projects in the Middle East.
It targets nearly 60 million passengers annually. Commercial operations are set to begin next week.
“The journey between the Haramain (two holy mosques) is now shorter and easier than at any time before,” Transport Minister Nabil al-Amoudi told dignitaries gathered at the Jeddah station.
The new rail link was built by a Spanish-led consortium and financed by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund. It halves travel time between Makkah and Medina.
Project manager Mohammed Fallatah said the train would offer fast and reliable transportation to pilgrims as well as Saudis and foreign residents.
“The traveler will be comfortable. He can read books or magazines or enjoy watching the screens in business class, have a coffee or a light meal,” he said.
The authorities hope the train will also stimulate growth of King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), a massive business zone that was initiated under the previous ruler but remains relatively empty.
It will eventually link up with a new terminal at Jeddah airport, which has already started serving select domestic routes and will take over all flights by early next year.
Fatallah said further expansion could include connecting to a planned east-west train between the capital Riyadh and Jeddah.
Pilgrims comprise the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million annual foreign visitors, apart from workers and business travelers. More than two million came for this year’s haj and 6.5 million performed umrah in 2017.
Officials aim to increase the number of umrah and haj pilgrims to 15 million and five million respectively by 2020, and hope to double the umrah number again to 30 million by 2030.