Morocco expects economic dividends from high-speed train

Tangier will now be 2 hours, 10 minutes from Casablanca by train instead of almost 5 hours.

CASABLANCA - Morocco’s launch of Africa’s first high-speed train (LGV) is set to have a big impact on the North African country’s economy, said experts and officials.

Moroccan King Mohammed VI and French President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated November 15 the made-in-France high-speed train, named “Al Boraq,” riding it from Tangier to Rabat.

“Al Boraq,” derived from the Islamic tradition, evokes “speed and travel,” according to Morocco’s National Railway Office (ONCF).

The inauguration had been planned for 2015 but was hampered by the lengthy expropriation procedures.

Tangier will now be 2 hours, 10 minutes from Casablanca by train instead of almost 5 hours as Morocco modernises its public transport infrastructure to boost its international image as a leading African hub for foreign investors.

The $2.4 billion investment in the high-speed line, including 200km of tracks and state-of-the-art train stations, is well below average European prices for a similar project.

Economic expert El Mehdi Fakir said the high-speed train would have a tremendous added value on Morocco’s economy because it links the country’s most important economic engines.

“The LGV is linking Tangier to Casablanca, Morocco’s major economic and industrial cities, going through Rabat and Kenitra, which is an emerging industrial hub,” Fakir said.

“Doing business in Tangier will now become much easier from Casablanca thanks to the high-speed train as it was a painful journey to make because of the single railway line between Kenitra and Tangier,” Fakir said, adding that the LGV would also boost local tourism.

ONCF Director Mohamed Rabie Khlie said the new railway line would play a major role in expanding Tanger-Med, citing the example of French manufacturer PSA Group’s moving to Kenitra after obtaining guarantees from the government that the vehicles produced in the western city can be transported to Tanger-Med port.

PSA is the second largest French car manufacturer to have moved to Morocco after Renault, which set up its factory near Tanger-Med port, Africa’s second biggest.

PSA’s Kenitra plant is aiming to double its annual production capacity to 200,000 in 2020, according to Jean-Christophe Quemard, PSA Group’s executive vice-president for the Africa-Mideast region.

The LGV project positions Kenitra as a major employment area with the ability to lure more foreign companies to set up their businesses in the city.

France’s national railway company SNCF used its expertise in high-speed design, construction, operation and maintenance of LGV. However, Khlie said that 90% of the work was carried out by Moroccan civil engineering firms.

“The ticket prices are more cost-effective than in the West because the majority of the work was done by Moroccan firms, which represented 50% of the overall cost of the project,” said Khlie.

Fakir emphasised the importance of the expertise gained by Moroccan engineering firms from their French counterpart.

“The know-how gained by Moroccan engineers will allow ONCF to expand its high-speed line business in both Morocco and Africa in the future,” said Fakir.

The Tangier-Kenitra line will run at a top speed of 320km per hour. However, the rest of the Kenitra-Rabat-Casablanca route will take a third lane that will allow the LGV to run at 180km per hour against 160km per hour for conventional trains pending the construction of an LGV track, which will be ready by 2020.

Civil society groups complained that ONCF has harmed the environment, including through deforestation, during the construction process but ONCF insisted it has reforested 2,100 hectares of forests, compared with 130 hectares deforested, in line with international environmental standards.

The LGV is expected to be operational by the end of November and 6 million passengers are expected to have used it after three years of operation, easing the burden on the often broken-down conventional trains.

Saad Guerraoui is a regular contributor to The Arab Weekly on Maghreb issues.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.