Contact us


I went over to Mecca to do a preparedness audit for the metro route that serves the Hajj sites. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed into Mecca (or Makkah as it is spelled here). As you approach on the roads there are warning signs saying “Muslims only” and there is a by-pass around the city which some people refer to as the “Infidel’s Road”. Serious stuff. But I had a permit which allowed me in, and this was accepted at the checkpoints.


A unique road sign. I went left.....

Getting there was interesting, as I flew from Riyadh to Ta’if. This city is about 70km east of Mecca and is in the mountains, situated about 6,000 feet above sea level. As a result it is a blessed 10 degrees cooler than Riyadh, and in years past before air conditioning was common, the Saudi rulers and government went there for the summer. As you come off the Ta’if plateau at Al Hada there is a mountain road that has hairpins reminiscent of alpine passes that takes you down towards Mecca. The Ta’if area is now a holiday centre and there are hotels and camps aplenty. One at the top edge of the cliffs has a cable gondola that transports you to the bottom in about 20 minutes. That is about the same time as driving the road takes, and is 1,000% safer. (On my return journey I counted 17 breakdown lorries on the hill, either mopping up crashes, helping cars that had overheated or just lurking in laybys awaiting the call).


Hold on tight....

I stayed in the staff quarters in the depot at the metro system. Basic and er well, basic. The railway was built 7 years ago purely to service the Hajj. A quick explanation about the Hajj: I am sure you know that this is the largest organised movement and gathering of humans on the planet. It is the duty of every able-bodied Muslim to attend at least one Hajj in his or her lifetime. It happens over a period of seven days at a certain point in the Islamic calendar (if you were paying attention in earlier blogs, you will recall that the Hirji year is lunar based and then that this gets 10 or 11 days earlier every Gregorian year, which is solar based). This year the Hajj will take place in mid-September. Between 2 and 3 million pilgrims descend on Mecca and follow a seven day fixed programme of religious observances. On day one they all go to place A and do a certain religious devotion. On day 2 they all go to place B and do the next devotion, etc etc. The Hajj metro is 18km in length and serves three of these religious sites and also the main encampment location. The city end terminus is about 4 kms from the main mosque.

So, a short metro with only 3 stations – what’s so special about it? The metro is all about capacity. The trains are 12 vehicles long, each with an internal capacity for 3,000 people in “normal” conditions, or 3,500 crush loading. There are 60 double-leaf sliding doors on each side of the train, that’s five per carriage. Pilgrims (they are not called passengers or customers) are boarded in groups of 50 through each door, with a station dwell target time of 60 seconds. Safety is helped by having platform edge doors, these are aligned with the carriage doors. Four metres back there are another set of platform doors, again 60 in number. The lines of doors are opened in sequence so that as soon as one train is boarded and doors closed, the next cohort of 3,000 pilgrims are brought forward to wait the next train, and behind them the next 3,000 are lined up. And if that is not enough, each station has 3 platforms for each direction. These are in series, not parallel, so trains operate in flights of 3. The first train stops at platform 1, the second in platform 2 which is 200m upstream, and the third in platform 3 which is 200m further back from p2. The signalling is full automatic train control (ATO) which allows headways of 30 seconds. So at any moment in time you can have 9,000 people boarding trains, with a further 9,000 behind them and a further 9,000 being marshalled out of the immense ocean of humanity heading towards the stations. At the destination station there are again 3 platforms for each track, and the first arriving train runs to the furthest forward platform, the second train to the middle one and the last train in the flight stopping at the rear platform. As far as I am aware, this arrangement is unique in the world. At the end of the line there are 3 parallel turnback sidings, and with ATO reversals are swift. Each train has a driver at both ends so if anything goes wrong, manual intervention can be rapid.

The number of staff employed on the line is mind-blowing. Over 7,500 station staff are hired during the Hajj, with at least one on every platform door, and hundreds more marshalling and assisting the pilgrims. There is no disability assistance legislation in the Kingdom, but it is recognised that many pilgrims are aged and / or infirm, so lifts and escalators are provided, although the majority are expected to walk up and down ramps. The lifts are immense, and plated for a maximum of 60 people each. The metro is only part of a huge transport operation for the pilgrims, it only caters for about 20% of the demand. The remainder of the pilgrims get about the Hajj sites in fleets of buses, or just walk. Specialist roads are built to take the buses, and there are walkways the width of motorways to cater for the pedestrians.

It is difficult to put this into perspective, but I’ll try. The stated capacity for the metro is 72,000 pax per hour in each direction. If the metro carries 450,000 pilgrims for one journey in each direction each day, that gives us 900,000 pax journeys per day. UK main line stations measure business in pax/year, so to get there lets multiply the metro’s day rate of 900,000 by 250 (50 x weeks x 5 weekdays, assuming that UK stations cater for business and commuters only). This gives an equivalent figure of 225 million. Using data from the ORR in 2015, this equates to the combined throughput of the following stations: Glasgow Central (29m), Edinburgh Waverley (21m), Waterloo (99m) and Victoria (85m). Put it another way – imagine the whole population of Edinburgh (490,000 – 2011 census) going for a day trip out to Livingston and back by train. And all this on a 2-track railway!

The Hajj metro operates for just seven days a year, the remainder of the time is spent in maintenance and readiness for the next Hajj. So in one week, the railway can carry 900,000 x 7 = 6.3m. If operating for a fortnight it could carry as many pax as the Glasgow Subway carries in a year (12.9m). As you can imagine, reliability and resilience is absolutely essential. If anything went wrong, the effect on the whole flow of pilgrims for the Hajj would be high.

Crowd control at the Hajj is taken incredibly seriously. Last year a crowd crush at two road intersections led to the deaths of 769 (officially), 2,236 (unofficially) people. In 1990, 1,426 people lost their lives in a stampede. Therefore the metro must get it right, first time and every time. Prior to the Hajj there are a series of scenario tests and emergency exercises. There is a full Saudi Government Ministry of Hajj and Umrah which oversees all the arrangements. Umrah is a pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims taken outside of the Hajj period and whilst the place is incredibly busy all year round, the metro is not required for that.

I had three days inspecting the railway and reviewing the management's capabilities. The report writing will take some time to get right, no room for error there either.


Trial running on the metro. Mecca's Clock Tower is visible in the background.

Contacting us is straightforward

* Email:

* Call Alastair Fyfe directly on 07785 370074 (UK) or +966 503095212