The fastest train in Africa is expected to boost the country’s economic development, but critics say the investment could have been better spent elsewhere.
Engineers in Morocco are preparing to test Africa’s first high-speed railway with trains reaching 320km (200 miles) per hour, the country’s rail office said on October 9th.
One train reached 275 kph (170 mph) on the 9th along a stretch of track between the northern cities of Kenitra and Tangiers, the national operator ONCF said.
“This is already the fastest train on the African continent,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was in Morocco to sign a loan deal between the ONCF and the French Development Agency.
The link between Casablanca and Tangiers via the capital Rabat will slash journey times between the North African country’s economic hubs by almost two thirds, to just over two hours.
Morocco’s TGV, which gets its name from the French abbreviation for high-speed trains, is set to enter service in summer 2018.
The total cost of the project, 50% financed by France through various loans, is around $2.4bn (€2bn). It is set to go around 15% over budget, according to figures released on October 9th.
But ONCF head Rabii Lakhlii said the project had cost “less than €9m per kilometre, compared to a European standard of €20m per kilometre”.
The route, made more complex by hilly terrain and strong winds, required the building of several viaducts including one some 3.5km long.
The ONCF is targeting 6m travellers a year after three years of operations. Lakhlii said tickets would cost about 30% more than those for the current rail link.
Moroccan leaders have heralded the project as a key step in modernising the country’s infrastructure.
But opponents have criticised it, saying the money could have been better spent in a country where many live in poverty. They also argue that it unfairly favoured French companies.
A carriage of the French-made TGV train arrives at the Moroccan port of Tangier in January – CNN
Speculate to accumulate
High-speed trains fit within a wider programme of infrastructure spending in Morocco that is intended to stimulate a sluggish economy.
The Tangiers-Casablanca route is expected to generate a sharp increase in passenger numbers that will boost tourism, support wider economic growth in the cities, and recoup the investment on it.
Rabii Lakhlii also said that growing passenger numbers had caused “saturation of the network,” making the new line a necessity.
He denied that an upgraded service would lead to high costs for passengers.
Risk and reward
The new trains carry risks as well as rewards, according to Zouhair Ait Benhamou, an economic analyst at the Financia Business School in France.
“The ONCF business model is based on the French model in which trains are heavily subsidised,” he says. “If the number of passengers does not materialise in two to three years, the government will have to provide subsidies.”
The government will hope to stimulate new economic activity in areas along the route, according to the analyst.
The new train line will impress foreign investors but they are likely to remain wary of Morocco, according to Riccardo Fabiani, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group.
Poor governance, corruption and a severely under-performing education system reflect the priorities of a government which is comfortable with uneven development, he believes.
Not all aboard
Such disparities have fueled the “Stop TGV” campaign, a coalition of activists arguing that the investment could be better used for failing public services.
“Morocco is a poor country and the top priority should be education,” says Omar Balafraj, a leader campaigner and MP for the Federation of the Democratic Left party.
The country’s northern Rif region has been rocked by unrest since protest over the death of a fisherman in October 2016 snowballed into a wider social movement demanding development for the long-impoverished region. (© AFP 10/10 2017; CNN 20/1)