A Fast Train to Mecca – but no train to a mecca

New Mecca Metro, or Mashair Railway outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia (picture)

Mecca Metro

It is interesting to compare separate and different business solutions to comparable problems.  A major issue to all resorts and destinations is transportation.  How do we get our potential visitors from where they live to us?  The answers vary and begin with location and geography; you can’t drive to an island or fly to a volcano’s rim or take a cruise ship to the top of a mountain (well that is not completely true, depending on where the mountain lies) or the middle of a desert.  And if you are in desert, a long, long way from any place it is a very important question.  Of course, flying is the easy answer, unless something happens to make flying more difficult,  expensive or dangerous – you know like 9-11.  Instead of flying you might drive or in some cases you might take the bus or the train – that is in some countries you might.

Taking the bus has become a “lower-class, lower-income” event, not one that is easy to sell into the mainstream American traveler; the train is also out of fashion in the United States.  It is slow, expensive and simply not convenient, except for some subway or commuter systems; but not so in other countries.  China in particular is developing a system of ultra fast trains that are faster, more convenient and less expensive than air travel – not particularly difficult in today’s world – and used.

Occasionally someone tries to make the case for a rail based solution in the United States. Las Vegas is one of those places and cases,  Las Vegas has tried to find a way to make trains work internally to get gamblers around the Strip and to develop a rapid train from the Los Angeles area (actually one plan would link all of California with Las Vegas as one of key points on the system).  Vegas is really vulnerable because of the distance from any primary market for its products – any increase in the cost of fuel, any increase in the danger of flying or any increase in the regulation associated with flying is seen in the activity on the Strip.  The internal commuter train is up and running, but not terribly popular with tourists or profitable – but it is there.  The LA train – and there are a couple of proposals vying for the opportunity – can’t find the funding.

Another desert city with some transportation issues is Mecca; it has never been easy to get to Mecca.  However,  the days of the long, expensive and dangerous pilgrimage, some times taking months by various modes of transportation, ships, horses, carts and camels are pretty much past and as I posted earlier flying to Saudi Arabia and Mecca is getting easier. But there is another transportation issue that while it is internal is much like the Las Vegas one.  Pilgrims need to get around town as it were, primarily from Mecca to Medina and back – a journey of only about 11 miles, but there are nearly 3 million people who need to make the journey at the same time.  Previous to the train that will make its debut for the trip next year, it took  4-6 hours to make the trip (many walked both ways); now with a new, Chinese built train 3 million people will be able to get to Medina from Mecca and back in 30 minutes of travel.

One of those fast Chinese trains could deliver thousands of visitors to Las Vegas from southern California hourly, each trip would be an hour or two – considering getting to and from the airport, checking-in, screening, boarding and such it would be faster, likely cheaper  and probably less offensive – although I suppose the government would in time think it was necessary to “touch your junk”  to ensure your safety or their control depending on your point of view.

In today’s economy funding is hard to find for anything, much less something so speculative as train travel in the United States.  In many parts of the world traveling by train and acceptable alternative to both auto and air travel, but it is untested here and therefore a risky venture. And I suppose that is more illustration of the danger of metaphors, particularly of extending them past their applicability.  Mecca is Mecca, Las Vegas is a city of casinos, pilgrims in Mecca are very different from gamblers in Las Vegas and the dynamics and finances of the two are also very different.  Still they are both cities in the desert trying to get people in, around, about and out as efficiently as possible – score one from Mecca.


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