Having Faith in the Rail: A Comparative Analysis of the Hejaz Railway Network and California’s Hyperloop
The Hejaz Railway network – a set of train routes consisting of branch lines (Acre to Deraa and Nablus to Deraa) and the main line between Damascus and Madinah – is arguably the 20th century’s greatest transportation project that raised the equity of travel to holy Islamic cities, reflected power interests of its Ottoman authorities, and defies conventions of transportation evolution and land use policies. Only the rails north of Saudi Arabia’s borders are functioning today. The California Hyperloop – a new mode of transportation that involves passenger-carrying capsules that travel, via renewable energy sources, at speeds beyond 500 miles per hour – will likely be the 21st century’s greatest transportation project. Like the Hejaz Railway, it will increase travel equity throughout California and disobey regular transportation geography principles, yet it reflects hostilities towards current U.S. political goals and the well-being of the United States’ current transportation infrastructure, which diverges from the Hejaz Railway’s notion of amplifying the interests of authorities. Given these similarities and differences between these two projects, lessons learned from the Hejaz Railway can be applied to the development of the California Hyperloop, and lessons from the California Hyperloop can be used to analyze longer ground routes and their transportation implications.
Background on the Hejaz Railway network
Completed on September 1, 1908, in the midst of the world’s pre-World War I volatility, the Hejaz Railway network connected two strategic cities, Madinah and Damascus, through a main line and a set of branch lines (Acre, Haifa, and Deraa were connected accordingly). The railway project was spearheaded by the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II alongside his governors, hired Turkish engineers, and European contractors.
The prominent purpose of the railway was to establish, for the first time ever, a streamlined and centrally controlled transportation route to the holy Hejaz province (home to two holy Islamic sites: Madinah and Makkah) designed to serve a ridership performing holy pilgrimages. Before the railway’s genesis, an average trip from lands north of the Arabian Peninsula to the Hejaz Province took over forty days by foot or twenty days by boat. This required large expenditures from respective pilgrims due to the harsh conditions in Arabian deserts, long routes, and security risks along said routes. With the Hejaz Railway network, travel time from Damascus to Madinah took between six to nine days on average, and less money was spent per pilgrim for making the trip (train tickets included accommodations and security at each station stop). Alongside non-profit goals (given the railway’s religious nature), the railway inherently raised the equity of travel along the rail routes; it provided travel opportunities to physically disable individuals, low income groups, more women, and more children.
The Hejaz Railway network represented other motives. The decline of the Ottoman Empire’s economy, European territorial expansion, and threats towards Ottoman rule within Arab provinces collectively added more fervor to Sultan Abdulhamid II’s aspirations for a grand railway. The railway was anticipated to increase Ottoman prestige around the world, streamline movement of troops throughout Arab provinces, create jobs at a time of high unemployment, and alleviate Ottoman debts via subsequent revenues, trade, and urban development.
The closure of the Hejaz Railway network and its incompletion
On November 1, 1922, on the same day of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, full operation of the Hejaz railway network ceased. Today, only the railways north of the Saudi Arabian – Jordanian border offer train services on the same historic railways (with exception to the railway lines in Syria, due to the ongoing Syrian Revolution). Saudi Arabia has merely expressed words of interest in resuming services along the Hejaz Railway network, and has yet to define any course of action to restoring the railways in its territories. Complications with wars north of Saudi Arabia, the conservative policies of Saudi Arabia, and distrust between Arab authorities add more reasons to the static status of the railway today.
Even before the closure of the railway network, the railway never reached one of its intended terminal stations: Makkah. The emir (i.e., mayor) of Makkah (named Sherif Hussein) strongly opposed to the railway reaching Makkah for reasons regarding economics (businesses in Makkah that depended on previous modes of travel to the city would be rendered useless), politics (the emir and his family’s authority over the city would decrease with inherent Ottoman power from the railway), and prospective loss of Arab culture in the Hejaz province (the Turkish authorities once envisioned Turkish nationalism diffusing across Arab lands and crushing hopes of Arab self-rule). The occurrence of World War I further prevented the extension of the railway from Madinah to Makkah, and thus ensured the emir’s aforementioned aspirations.
Background on the California Hyperloop
The hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that utilizes renewable energy sources and alternative propulsion methods (such as electromagnetism) to eliminate as much friction as possible during transit. A hyperloop would be fast enough to carry passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in thirty minutes (which brings about multiple economic and demographic ramifications).
The idea of a hyperloop in California first came to life from Elon Musk’s (founder of Tesla and SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal) white paper on hyperloop technologies. The paper not only aimed to present a new mode of transportation, but also aimed at convincing transit authorities and the public of the futility of high speed rail (California proposed building a high speed rail network prior to Elon Musk criticizing authorities for not considering other transit alternatives). Elon Musk is currently running a capsule design competition at his Hawthorne SpaceX headquarters.
In accordance with the competition’s timeline, the chosen capsule design would be used to build a hyperloop route between Los Angeles and San Francisco by 2025 (five years earlier than the anticipated completion of California’s high speed rail proposed earlier).
The California Hyperloop, like the Hejaz Railway did, seeks to increase travel equity across California and create more job opportunities (not only jobs associated with railway; people could commute between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and thus search for jobs in either city rather than be restricted to one city). Additionally, it aims to redefine ideal transportation principles throughout the world.
Arguments, comparisons, and lessons learned
Branch lines are equity lines
In regards to the Hejaz Railway, the lack of branch lines connecting to the main line yielded lowered travel opportunities for individuals that earn less money relative to average income in provinces where such individuals reside (Table 1). When the main line first began operations in 1908, the demand for first and second class seats (the railway had three classes, with the first class offering more services than the second class, and so on) was higher than the demand for third class seats, despite the ease of transport relative to other available modes at the time. The discrepancy in such findings can be attributed to the initial lack of branch lines between highly populated cities and Damascus, a terminal city on the main line. Most riders earning low income relative to Second and First class riders lived in Nablus, Palestine, and Deraa, Syria, which are two large cities connected via branch lines. Without the branch lines, low income ridership share was virtually not accessible; low income individuals from Nablus or Deraa usually could not afford travel to Damascus to reach the main line.
Elon Musk’s white paper envisioned a main hyperloop line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. UCLA’s hyperloop Suprastudio, in collaboration with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc., recommended adding branch lines between Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Anaheim, and Las Vegas (Figure 1) in order to extend the equity of travel on the California hyperloop (San Bernardino and Anaheim are mentioned as “low-income bedroom communities” within the Suprastudio’s writings). Additionally, the Suprastudio proposed alternative transportation mechanisms (such as car and bus services) that could be implemented if the building of additional hyperloop tubes as branch lines ends up becoming unfeasible. Given that the branch lines are being proposed with equity as one of the targeted factors, the branch lines may yield a similar effect on ridership as did the branch lines on the Hejaz Railway network.
Land Use and Land Policy parallels
Both the Hejaz Railway and the California Hyperloop possess similar land use/policies. The Hejaz Railway set minimum land and resource standards for each major station stop along the railway’s route, including minimum water capacities, housing, roads, hospitals, schools, and pedestrian zones (Figure 2). Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc. argued for new land policies similar to the standards of the Hejaz Railway as a means of enhancing the utility of the California Hyperloop (Figure 3). Such land policies added incentives for investment into both transportation projects and to bolster the economies of each station stop and its surroundings (i.e., station stops can yield more avenues to urban growth, particularly when land policies are enacted correctly).
Defiance of transportation and urban growth principles
When cities introduced faster of modes of transportation relative to walking (e.g., the omnibus, cable cars, and automobiles), the transition from the “walking city” to the modern cities we live in today included intermediate steps and growth patterns that represented the practical distances most people travelled and the resulting land policies influenced by such transportation patterns (Figure 4).
Since the Hejaz Railway and the California Hyperloop utilize long routes to connect two largely populated cities, the concept of a city and its land policies growing with respect to transportation parameters (e.g., freeways, intra-city rail, etc.) cannot apply to one city without considering the other connected cities in question. This would yield a different representation of the “growing city” from that shown in Figure 4. Additionally, intermediate stops between termini would not necessarily witness growth in the fashion displayed in Figure 4. Depending on the resources, land use policies, and demographics of an intermediate stop of concern, the intermediate stop may exhibit growth in most spectrums of urban development without the growing of the “urban reach” or simply depend on the well-being of the station stop and its associated facilities (this would render the station stop as a quasi-central business district).
Primary objectives can be primary obstacles
The most published and sought after objectives for the Hejaz Railway and the California Hyperloop include religion and establishing a new age of living, respectively. Both objectives have, in unfortunate terms for planners and ones spearheading, yielded opposition – the Hejaz Railway network did not reach Makkah due to religious-based reasons, and the California Hyperloop has to overcome arguments from status quo beneficiaries (of which many are administering transportation projects in California) to successfully develop a hyperloop with a long-living prospective.
Sherif Hussein of Makkah argued against the Hejaz Railway reaching Madinah with the basis of his religious authority (he was the emir of the holiest Islamic site in the world, after all) and diffused religious-based premonitions regarding the railway across Makkah’s citizenry (e.g., he described the railway as the “devil’s donkey” and proclaimed the line as a conspiracy project from Europeans to take over the holy cities). The apparent conflicts between Sultan Abdulhamid II, the caliph of the Islamic World, and Sherif Hussein, the emir of Islam’s holiest city, alienated many Muslims around the world and led to some pilgrims insisting on other modes of transportation instead of using a railway that connotes seemingly shallow power interests between two religious authorities. The Arab Revolt, officially declared by Sherif Hussein in 1916, owes its foundations to the conflicting religious interests between Sherif Hussein and Ottoman authorities; without the genesis of the railway, the Arab Revolt would have had little basis for its birth, for the Arabs were already content with semi-autonomous rule over Arab provinces before the development of the railway.
The California Hyperloop’s goals may lead to undesirable outcomes (like the Hejaz Railway). The completion of the California Hyperloop would change the demographics, economics, and standards of living throughout California, and such changes are not ideal for many current corporate and municipal entities. The concept of commuting over hundreds of miles in a matter of minutes allows for more changes in employment, residence preferences, and consumer demands, which would take a large toll on facets of the U.S. business world that depend on predictable and gradually changing economic arenas. The criticism that the California Hyperloop is receiving includes warnings and doubts from General Motors (automobile industry, which benefits from intra-city commuting), Caltrans (highways, tolls, and road demand), and port authorities (the California Hyperloop’s operations does not include legal compatibilities with port authorities in Los Angeles and San Francisco). The cooperation of these entities with hyperloop-based transit is likely to be necessary for the success of the California Hyperloop. For example, the proposed routes of the California Hyperloop include freeways and paths either owned or administered by Caltrans (Figure 5). Building routes on Caltrans-administered paths would save money for the California Hyperloop via already existing transportation infrastructure and encountering less legal/policy problems associated with already made-to-design transit corridors. Additionally, recruitment strategies of employers would change with the introduction of the California Hyperloop; current enterprise measurements (Figure 6) would likely change drastically due to competing markets and recruitment from cities connected by the California Hyperloop. The possibility of additional enterprises opposing the hyperloop’s current development plans also exists.
The longer the route, the less the regionalism
The Hejaz Railway network initially operated under private contractors and on regional bases (each “Vilayet”, or state, in the Ottoman Empire was allowed to administer the trans-vilayet with a regionalism-based system analogous to how states in the United States administer their railways) and yielded acceptable operation statuses. However, recurring problems under a regionalism-based operation scheme included late trains (which happened so frequently that even Ottoman advertisements of the railway mentioned the tardiness of the trains), stalled trains (usually from mechanical failures), and train staff strikes (due to the complications from miscommunication between station and Ottoman authorities). Due to the dangers posed by World War I and the prospective of an Arab Revolt, Ottoman authorities placed authority of the entire railway under a newly made transportation ministry (called the Muq’m ministry) that would ultimately have central and sole control of the railway’s administrations. As a result of the change from regionalism to central administration, less trains stalled, less staff members were pressured to strike, and the tardiness of trains became less frequent (Table 2).
The California Hyperloop is under private authority and private intellectual property. Elon Musk’s white paper outlines a centralized hyperloop transportation authority would be ideal relative to current state-run railway administrative systems. When comparing to the case of the Hejaz Railway, the California Hyperloop would find better results in involving as little regionalism as possible in its administration.
The longer the route, the greater the equity
The Hejaz Railway network witnessed the biggest and most frequent movements of low-income individuals across hundreds of kilometers in the Ottoman Empire’s existence. As the railway continued to grow in length (partial operations of the railway began before the railway reached Madinah), the demand for Third Class tickets increased. The additions of the branch lines also added distance, and thus more travel equity, to the Hejaz Railway network (which coincided with the increase in Third Class tickets upon the synchronization of branch and main lines). The Hejaz Railway, as a long routed train network, made it less exorbitant and less risky for low-income individuals to perform either religious or non-religious travels to and from the Hejaz province. More expensive and less secure caravans (where the richer travelers hired more bodyguards and laborers) were previously used prior to the completion of the Hejaz Railway.
Similar concepts of longer routes yielding greater equity can be said for the California Hyperloop. Increasing access to more jobs, housing, and other everyday resources ineluctably favors equity. Eliminating barriers posed by time and space limitations (based off of our current transportation modes) would help disadvantaged individuals in the long run. The California Hyperloop would connect more programs, more places, and more happenings in shorter amounts of time, which ends up being a win-win situation for almost all social strata concerned.
Lessons learned from religion
Without the use of religion as a basis for building the railway, its political solutions would not have existed and would have thus yielded an earlier Ottoman demise. The religious characteristics of the Hejaz Railway (i.e., designed for Muslim international passengers) explain the effects of a debt-free transportation project, the elaborate bureaucracy changes, and its unique ridership demographics (i.e., an epitome to an equitable railway system). The religious nature of the railway brought about the use of an international workforce and the railways unique evolution (e.g., regionalism transitioning to centralization, development of major stations rather than major cities, etc.)
Including religious motives in today’s transit policies around the world may accelerate desired transportation projects. Many faiths require one to travel either short or long distances to satisfy religious principles, which would maintain demand for certain routes if such routes are better alternatives to current transportation routes/modes. Maintained demand would likely attract more investors and donors than anticipated, alongside a workforce with vested interests to follow through with transit policies more efficiently. Other cases demonstrating the factor of religion include the Toros Express in Turkey (Istanbul to Aleppo), railways throughout Utah (Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints), and the Eastern & Oriental Express (Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore).
Corruption in the context of the railway’s finances was almost completely absent. Multiple audits, legal investigations, and debt patterns on the railway’s proponents revealed little to no corruption activity. This is likely due to the railway’s religious nature, the personal value the railway possessed towards the Ottoman sultan, and the many businesses following strict procedures to open and operate along the railway’s paths.
Religion brought about extra avenues to funding the Hejaz Railway. Donations (from both Ottoman constituents and other nations) comprised one-third of the railway’s total income during development (about 4 million Turkish Liras, or 1 million U.S dollars at early twentieth century inflation rates). Officials from India, Egypt, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Burma, Iran, Russia, and Netherlands (alongside many more national entities) contributed generous donations to the railway project.
The difference between a hyperloop and a Hejaz Railway train
Elon Musk’s expected outcomes of the California Hyperloop revolve around establishing a brand new mode of transportation that would shake the status quo on almost all societal levels. Unlike the California Hyperloop, the Hejaz Railway network was meant to bolster Ottoman status quo in regards to power of the Sultan, legitimacy of Ottoman rule, and the prestige of the centuries-old Ottoman Empire throughout the world. Despite such a difference in mission, the concrete characteristics between the two transportation projects share fundamental similarities.
The California Hyperloop can apply lessons and outcomes obtained from the rise and fall of the Hejaz Railway network. With similarities in route length and cuts in travel time, branch and main line infrastructure, central control over regionalism approaches to control, and providing additional equity to long-routed travel, the mistakes of the Hejaz Railway should be avoided in the context of the California Hyperloop. Additionally, the California Hyperloop will likely encounter further opposition to its primary goals, as did the Hejaz Railway, and must start working now to build arguments and solutions towards the criticism posed by already powerful entities.
Additional lessons learned between the two transportation projects include branch line-equity relationships, length of route and equity relationships, and the distinctions in transportation geography both between the two projects and between currently used transportation modes.
The beneficial outcomes from land use and policies associated with either transportation project comes to show how said projects in such scales can create additional incentives and goals for communities and entities affected by the projects. Thorough research for the California Hyperloop has already been performed in regards to land use and policy (via UCLA Suprastudio and Hyperloop Technologies Inc.) and potential land plots have been identified accordingly. Since much of the growth during the latter years of the Ottoman Empire stemmed from sustainable and long-term living land policies, we can hope for the same stems to appear in the case of the California Hyperloop and any hyperloop projects of similar nature.
Religion acted as both the key success and the ultimate obstacle to the railway’s success. Power interests associated with the religious-natured railway helped lead to the Arab Revolt against Ottoman authority as well as British and French plans to either obtain the railway via military, diplomatic, or business means. Following the Ottoman Empire’s death, power struggles (further amplified by the railway’s importance and economic potential) within the Hejaz region caused disintegration of the railway’s integral portions and functionality. Shifting religious narratives within Arab-majority countries in the 21st century further decreased chances of creating viable transit policies that would allow for a regionally administered railway network to either Mecca or Medina.
The future of the railway is uncertain. Although restoration of stations and adjacent segments of rails have been executed across modern states that house them, the conservatism of Saudi Arabia, the revolution occurring in Syria, the security priorities of Jordan, and the lack of a stable Lebanese government (recent protests have been directed against their environment minister for failing to have trash picked up around the city) do not put the Hejaz Railway at the forefront of any party’s agenda. Prior to troubles in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria (all of which are north of Saudi Arabia), nonetheless, some pilgrims from across the world used portions of the railway both for practical purposes and for purposes in exploring a railway’s route that once carried the entire world, like Atlas, on its shoulders towards holy sites and historical cities.
1908-1909 (before branch lines built) Beginning of 1910 (after all branch lines built)
Average bi-weekly First Class ticket orders 153 172
Average bi-weekly Second Class ticket orders 175 197
Average bi-weekly Third Class ticket orders 126 374
Table 1: Average monthly purchases of train tickets for each class of travel before and after the building of branch lines.
Regionalism (1908 – 1913) Central Control (1913-1920)
Frequency of tardy trains More than 90% of all scheduled train trips About half of all scheduled train trips
Frequency of stalled trains Almost half of all train trips Less than a quarter of train trips
Frequency of strikes by staff On average, four times a year Once (in 1919, due to World War I complications)
Table 2: Frequency of undesirable railway happenings during regionalism and during central control.
Figure 1: UCLA Suprastudio’s proposed branch line routes, with distinctive main stations and intermediate stops.
Figure 2: A water reservoir and a security fortress in Maan, Saudi Arabia, a major station stop in the Hejaz Railway network.
Figure 3: Hyperloop Technologies Inc. recommended implementing land policies, such as minimum water standards (via the Los Angeles River, pictured here) and transforming under-used roads and vacant lots into possible hyperloop routes and hyperloop service stations, respectively.
Figure 4: The urban reach of cities in terms of transitioning transportation roads. 1890 = Walking City. 1920 = Railroads/Cable Cars. 1945 = Automobiles without freeways. 2000 = Freeway age.
Figure 5: Proposed hyperloop route (with curvature indices) along highway routes between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Figure 6: Current concentration of employment in Los Angeles County (the bigger the circle, the higher the concentration of employment).
Figure 7: Main line and associated branch lines of the Hejaz Railway
Figure 8: Inauguration of a Hejaz Railway station (Deraa, Syria)
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