Crowd management systems and state-of-the-art transport solutions, provided by Thales, mean safer journeys for Mecca’s three million Hajj pilgrims
Pilgrimage to Mecca – Hajj – is an obligation for Muslims and the number of pilgrims visiting Saudi Arabia’s holy sites continues to grow. In the last 15 years, the number of non-Saudi pilgrims has risen by nearly 70% and today, Hajj represents one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings.
Making sure the pilgrimage runs smoothly is a priority for the Saudi authorities. But this presents a number of challenges. These include the need to ensure safety for huge crowds. And it means providing secure, efficient transport links between several different sites spread out over a wide area.
Smoother, faster journeys
The Saudi government has responded to these challenges with major investments in both physical and electronic infrastructure. The new al-Mashaaer al-Mugaddassah Metro is a case in point: opened in time for the Hajj pilgrimage in 2010, it makes use of Thales’ advanced driverless technology to provide safe, smooth journeys for Hajj pilgrims.
Phase 1 of the metro project – the first of its sort in Saudi Arabia – entered revenue service in November and connects the holy sites of Mount Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina. Using the new metro link, a journey that once took five hours can now be achieved, in comfort, in just ten minutes.
Thales’ world-leading communications-based train control (CBTC) solution – SelTrac – was chosen to optimise safety, capacity and efficiency on the new 18km line. Trains on the network are currently capable of carrying 25,000 pilgrims each hour, with capacity rising to 72,000 for Hajj 2011, thanks to the new system.
In tandem with the SelTrac deployment, Thales has also provided a fully-integrated communications solution for the metro, which includes an operation control centre (OCC) and an automatic information system for passengers.
A safer pilgrimage
Thales’ solutions are also enhancing crowd safety at Jamarat, one of the busiest points on the Hajj pilgrimage. Located in the city of Mina, near Mecca, Jamarat is where pilgrims gather to perform the ritual of the stoning of the devil, in which three columns are pelted with pebbles.
Overcrowding at Jamarat has caused several major incidents in recent years: between 1994 and 2006, stampedes at the site claimed more than 1,000 lives. To improve safety, the Saudi authorities launched a major site improvement programme, including the construction of a new multi-level bridge, completed in 2009.
Hajj draws nearly 3 million pilgrims to Mecca (here at Jamarat)
To further improve the level of safety for pilgrims, Thales was selected to provide an innovative crowd monitoring and information system for Jamarat. A similar solution is also used to monitor and manage crowds on the new metro (please see Customer perspective).
Crowd counting is at the heart of the Jamarat solution, with more than 100 fixed cameras feeding an intelligent video analysis system. Real-time crowd data generated by the system allows the security services to pinpoint potential problems and to provide pilgrims with an early warning.
“The innovation here is that each camera provides individual counting, but the data is aggregated on the central servers” says Chokri Aroud, Deputy Programme Director and Operations Manager, Thales. “On each floor of the bridge, for example, you can see how many people have entered and how many have left.”
Crowd density is a critical factor. “You can have 120,000 people moving smoothly” explains Mr. Aroud. “But if you have 10,000 people at high density, say three or four people per square metre, you need to act quickly. So the software not only counts, but it also measures density – this is extremely important.”
Thales’ solution for Jamarat incorporates control rooms where police officers monitor the crowd and give real-time instructions to soldiers in the field to redirect pedestrian flows. Thales also supplied a complete communications solution – including a data network, so different control rooms can share the same view. In addition, Thales has provided comprehensive video surveillance with more than 600 cameras, a mass messaging system, including giant LED screens, and a dedicated DVB-T television service, with channels for pilgrims in four different languages.
Control room - © Omar Chatriwala
Thales’ expertise is also set to enhance security around the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina, where a new 1,500-camera system, with crowd monitoring, will supervise gatherings of up to one million during the Hajj period.
And on the metro, 2011 will see the implementation of Thales Hypervisor. This will allow operators to supervise everything from train operations to crowd management, all achieved using a unique single-screen interface.
Advanced electronic solutions of this sort allow operators to actively manage the way that physical infrastructure is used. And in an increasingly crowded world, the ability to manage assets in this way could have important implications: not only for major events, but also – potentially – for entire cities as well.
Video: Crowd surveillance in Mecca
What makes crowds so dangerous? A moving crowd, even a large one, has the capacity to ‘self organise’ safely if the density is low enough. Under normal conditions, crowds have a spontaneous intelligence of their own, developing ‘laminar flows’, or streams, that keep everyone moving.
But as density increases, these smooth patterns start to disintegrate. To understand why this happens, scientists at Dresden University of Technology worked with Saudi government officials on a unique research project based on video analysis of the 2006 Hajj stampede in which more than 300 people died.
The team came up with some unexpected findings. As crowd density rose, researchers identified the onset of stop-and-go waves similar to those found in road traffic jams. This was followed by transition to a much more chaotic state, with outbreaks of panic as individuals lost control. This phenomenon – known as crowd turbulence – can trigger disaster.
Thales’ solution for Jamarat, one of the busiest pilgrimage sites, builds on this new understanding. The system provides real-time crowd counting, density measurements and communications, making it possible for the security authorities to spot potential problems early – and to intervene – to reduce the risk to pilgrims.