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Thu 21 Feb 2008 01:17 AM

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Holy cities rail link gets green light

Long-awaited network to join Mecca and Medina with Jeddah at speeds of up to 300km per hour.

Saudi King Abdullah on Wednesday gave the green light for a high-speed rail link between Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina via the commercial hub of Jeddah, the official SPA news agency reported.

It said the project, first mooted years ago to help transport the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who visit the kingdom for the annual hajj pilgrimage, will be financed by Saudi investment funds.

The new rail link aims to transport an estimated 10 million Umrah and Haj pilgrims every year. It includes the construction of approximately 500 kilometres of high-speed electric railway lines between the three cities.

Jeddah on the Red Sea is the required port of entry for millions of Muslims performing the year-round Umra, or minor pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

It is also the port of entry for the main hajj which precedes the annual Feast of the Sacrifice, or Eid al-Adha, and brings together more than two million of the faithful.

The trains will travel at up to 300 kilometres (180 miles) per hour, allowing a Mecca-Jeddah journey time of half an hour and Jeddah-Medina in two hours, SPA quoted Transport Minister Jebarah bin Eid Al-Suraisri as saying.

SPA did not give an estimated cost or timetable for the project, however a spokesman for the Saudi Binladin group said in January it expected a contract worth $5 billion to be awarded at the end of this year.

The network is part of a massive kingdom-wide railway project, which also involves the construction of 950 kilometres of new tracks between Riyadh and Jeddah, and another 115 kilometres of track between Dammam and Jubail.

Last April the Saudi government awarded three contracts totaling 1.9 billion dollars for the construction of railways covering 1,766 kilometres (1,100 miles).

SPA said at the time the work was expected to take 42 months to complete.

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