Mecca has entered a new phase of development, expected to change life in the holy city, Saudi officials told Al-Shorfa.
Last month, the kingdom's cabinet approved a project to build a metro rail network to cover the entire city, which would cost up to 62 billion riyals ($16.5 billion).
"The project is a leap forward for the transport sector in Mecca, which is visited by millions of pilgrims every year," Abdullah al-Barakati of Amanat Mecca told Al-Shorfa.
According to al-Barakati, the 182-kilometre metro would comprise 88 stations and four lines. It would span the city's current and future development zones.
"The great challenges Mecca faces in the area of transport -- the result of severe overcrowding year-round, especially during the hajj and Ramadan seasons, and accelerating population growth -- necessitated the project," al-Barakati said.
"The project is an important step in the framework of development in all the kingdom's cities in general, and Mecca in particular," Osama al-Tureiki, owner of al-Tureiki Engineering Office in Mecca, told Al-Shorfa. He added that it is a major project in terms of construction, development and expenditure and embodies the keen interest the Saudi leadership has in the holy city.
In its central zone, a 35-kilometre section of the rail network would be routed through underground tunnels, comprising 21 stations. The rest of the rail network would utilise suspension bridges and comprise 67 stations, al-Tureiki said.
"The project's technical plan took into consideration the topographic obstacles and the difficult terrain of the city, which is surrounded by mountains like a bracelet around a wrist, thus concentrating traffic in certain areas," he said. "The public transport plan of the rail network and its complementary buses are a strategic solution that meets the challenges of growth and overcomes the shortcomings of the [current] public transport system."
Two other railway projects are also under way on the city's outskirts: the Haramain High Speed Railway, which runs from Medina and Jeddah to a terminal in Mecca's western area, and the Al-Mashaer al-Muqaddasa railway, which terminates at the al-Jamarat station in the east.
Jameel Mulla, a researcher specialising in Mecca's history, said that public transport in Mecca has undergone rapid development over the years to handle the large crowds that pour into the city at certain times of the year.
"For years Mecca has needed alternatives to the traditional means of transport," he told Al-Shorfa. "Despite enormous efforts made to open new routes, expand existing ones and streamline the flow of traffic into holy sites, the need remained for such a project and the internal railway network was a dream for officials in Mecca, whose mountainous terrain is not [readily] conducive to implementing transport projects of this kind."
Global advancements in rail technology "presented remarkable solutions that made it possible to implement this project, which [would be relied on] to solve the city's internal transport problem and traffic jams, and help reduce pollution by decreasing reliance on small vehicles," Mulla said.
The city's last population census estimated that Mecca has a population of around 1.8 million people. In addition to that, the holy city attracts about two million hajj pilgrims and more than five million umrah pilgrims each year.