More than two million people kick off the Hajj pilgrimage today by heading out east from Mecca to Mina, a tent city on a majestic scale that’s only in use once a year. ??Once there, a series of rituals take place, involving visits to the valley of Muzdalifa, Mount Arafat to sincerely ask for forgiveness and erase one’s previous sins, and the Jamarat where pilgrims will stone the devil - satan or al-shaytaan in Arabic.?

“Symbolic” stoning is the intention theologically, to provide a physical outlet for each pilgrim’s personal battle with the temptations of worldly possessions, the ego and other such evils that hinder submission to God and purity of heart.??

However during a visit on the lesser “Umrah” pilgrimage that I made here seven years ago, where I could inspect the Jamarat devoid of crowds six weeks after the Hajj had ended, I noticed spray-painted graffiti on one of the concrete pillars, reading “PUSH” (I think it meant to say “BUSH”) and another saying “SHARON”. The sight made me question whether the concrete devil wasn’t actually THE devil for some passionate pilgrims who pelted it.
 
Devils and former US and Israeli politicians aside - the mass exodus from Mecca to Mina and all the back-and-forth scrambling of rich and poor among the eclectic, more-than-one-billion strong global Muslim population, is taxing. For the sincere pilgrim - and also for authorities.

These mini-journeys within the big spiritual odyssey can take up 12 hours each, and often are quicker by foot that by bus or car - in nerve-wracking bumper-to-bumper traffic.
 
Two billion dollar railway

A Saudi solution has been to unveil the Mashair rail project. It cost them nearly $2bn, and will eventually replace thousands of cars and buses and ease congestion at the holy sites.
 
It is a line that has three stations at each Arafat, Muzdalifa and the Jamarat. It won’t be touching Mecca yet, but in the long-term Saudi officials plan for it to not only reach Islam’s holiest site but also the second holiest  - Madina, the city of the Prophet -  over 300km away.
 
It will only operate at 35 per cent capacity this year and will incrementally expand its services over each forthcoming Hajj.



I met up with Habib Zein Al Abideen - the "Chief of Central Directorate for Development of Project" at the central office site for the Mashair project and asked him why the train line, was, according to rail definitions, only a "light" rail and not something more substantial.
 
"It is not a light rail, it is mass transit!" he half-reprimanded, half-educated me. "It is big - 70,000 persons per hour. This is not light!"
 
Exuberant, pleasant and conversant in English, Arabic and German (as he chatted to the German consultants in his office), he was confident that in the long-term, the "big problem" of "too many cars and buses" could finally be overcome by the railway line.
 
The line is impressive. Modern, elegant and in many places above-ground so as not to disturb the flow of pilgrims on foot - these lime-green trains zip through stations where announcements can be heard in English and Arabic for passengers to "mind the gap" - between the platform and train - though I couldn’t find any gap. Nonetheless it pricked my nostalgia for Leicester Square station in London.
 
Controversial Sino-Saudi partnership

Some 14,000 of the 20,000 workers who built (and continue to expand) Mashair are Chinese. Chinese contractors were the best bidders to clinch this lucrative contract. The Sino-Saudi partnership hasn’t been without controversy though. In October, 16 of those workers were arrested and deported back to China.

Their crime was to strike, over pay and poor working conditions. I quizzed Habib Zein Al Abideen about the events of October. He became visibly uneasy, and irritated at the very mention of this.
 
"This happens sometimes, in each country, we have not any big problems actually...”  And then, recovering like a train momentarily diverting off-track onto a new line, “What is important is this project it is finalised for the Stage One in just one year."
 
I wondered about the Chinese workers that I saw at the Arafat station. They were neither Hui nor Uighur - the Chinese ethnic-Muslim groups. Although some media reports noted that about 1,600 of the railway workers converted to Islam recently, what about the almost twelve and a half thousand others?

Had they received a special dispensation by the Saudi government to work on the sites, explicitly forbidden to non-Muslims for 1400 years? Had they done “symbolic” (we see that word crop up again) conversions like the two French paratroopers who helped Saudi forces flush out Juhayman al-Otaibi’s messianic group during the siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979?

I feared my questions would be too impolite, so I’ll leave it to you, the reader to ponder over them. What was clear, though, was that soon after we arrived at Arafat station, a handful of Chinese workers were involved in a fist-fight with their Arab work colleagues.

Our minders quickly ensured we weren’t filming it.
 
Gulf countries first

There’s little doubt that the train is a magnificent engineering feat, that will slash travel time, remove choking congestion and possibly save lives as a result. But whose lives?

Pilgrims from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates who make up the GCC countries can use the train if they fork over SAR250 (just under $70) for a week-long Hajj ticket. Single-ride tickets are also available.

Habib Zein Al Abideen indicated that those entering the Kingdom for Hajj, via car from neighbouring states like Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq will be allowed to use the train from next year.

There are no plans, at present, to extend the service to those of other nationalities, who make up the majority of the pilgrims. Indonesia, Pakistan and India (in debatable order) have the largest Muslim populations in the world.
 
So while acknowledging the usefulness of the train and its attempt to make Hajj easier, the bulk of pilgrims who will be unable to buy a ticket should be forgiven for seeing it as nothing more than "symbolic".