Morocco’s much anticipated first “train à grande vitesse” (or TGV) took its maiden voyage on Thursday, November 15 at Tangier-City Station. The new high-speed train links the northern coastal city with Morocco’s main industrial center, Casablanca. While the new line is widely touted as a big step forward in enhancing Morocco’s economic development and modernization, what are the ramifications of installing this tremendously fast train in a developing economy?
A First in Africa, Others Planned in MENA
Morocco’s launch of its TGV is the first of its kind in Africa. It came in the same month as Saudi Arabia’s high-speed rail linking Islam’s two holiest cities, and announcement of Israel’s Jerusalem-Tel Aviv fast train, which has been plagued with problems.
The TGV project has so far involved investments of around 22.9 billion Moroccan dirhams ($2.42 million), much of it drawn from France and the Persian Gulf. Along with France, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE have directly contributed. The Al Boraq train represents the first step in King Mohammed VI’s 70 billion dirhams ($7.38 billion) plan to revitalize the Moroccan rail sector. The long-term goal of this plan is to link all of Morocco’s major cities with high-speed TGV trains.
As noted, Morocco is not the only country in the MENA region with plans for high-speed rail networks. On March 12, 2018, Egypt’s Transport Minister Hisham Arafat said that Egypt is in the process of launching a TGV, linking the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, in collaboration with over 10 international companies.
The Gulf may also soon see a number of high-speed trains. Qatar has announced it intends to have high-speed rail links to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia built in time for its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and the UAE has said it is planning to construct a TGV between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These networks are part of the ambitious plan for the Etihad Railway, a 2200 km rail network that will link the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia). Saudi Arabia also opened an internal high-speed rail network on October 11, 453 km (281.5 mi) long and costing around US$9.4 billion, the Haramain High-Speed Rail project will link the Muslim holy cities of Medina and Mecca via a number of other locations. It is expected that 50 million tickets a year will be purchased on this line.
International Cooperation and Economic Investment
Morocco’s TGV project would not have been possible without close cooperation between Morocco and France. HM King Mohammed VI and French President Emmanuel Macron were the first two “commuters” to ride the TGV as part of the inauguration on November 15. Several French business leaders whose companies contributed to the TGV project accompanied President Macron for the inauguration. Several Moroccan ministers also formed part of the delegation, which was flanked by a colorful detachment of the Royal Guard.
The two heads of state boarded the train at Tangier and ended their journey one hour and twenty minutes later in the capital city of Rabat. Reaching a top speed of well over 300km/h, the journey’s 1h20m is far quicker than the 3h45m it would normally take.
The TGV reduces travel time even more between Tangier and Casablanca from 4h45m down to 2h10m. Along with these advances, the TGV is expected to double the number of railway users from three million to six million per year by the third year of operation. Increased ridership is expected to reduce the number of road users, thus increasing road safety and protecting the environment.
The TGV project has also had a positive socioeconomic effect, according to the Moroccan government. With an estimated 30 million days of direct and indirect employment having been created already throughout its development, the operation of the Al Boraq train going forward is expected to create a further 1,500 direct jobs, and 800 indirect jobs for Moroccans.
The participation of the French state in the TGV project is evident. The partnership between France and Morocco in the venture has led to the creation of the Rabat-based Institut de Formation Ferroviare (IFF), which will operate as a joint venture with the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF), France’s state-owned railed company.
The role of the IFF will be to promote the rights and skills of railway workers in Morocco and the surrounding region, according to a statement from the government. The purpose of the partnership is to develop technologies and skills within the Moroccan state railway company Office National des Chemins de Fer (ONCF) with a view to transferring increasing control of the TGV project to the Moroccan state over time.
Upon arrival at their destination station of Rabat-Agdal, ONCF Director General Mohamed Rabie Khlie greeted President Macron and HM King Mohammed VI with two scale models of the Al Boraq train and copies of a book, titled Morocco at High Speed, printed in Arabic, French, and English.
Despite the promising aspects of the upgrade to TGV, the several-million-dollar project does not come without risks. The business model for the project is based on the French system which assumes a large, ongoing state subsidy, a factor which some have questioned the Moroccan government’s ability to sustain. The Moroccan government has asserted that this deficit will be covered by the expected huge increase in passengers. If the hoped-for increase does not materialize, however, many argue that the project will simply become unaffordable.
On the safety side, while the construction and design invariably include measures to ensure the trains operate safely, there is always a margin for human error. Just last month a train derailed on the line running between Rabat and Kenitra, an origin and destination along the same route as the TGV, allegedly due to driver error. At least four people were killed and dozens were injured.
Advocates of the new rail network claim that the new improved infrastructure will lead to increased foreign investments in Morocco, particular in the areas served by the TGV, such as Kenitra, just north of Rabat. While this is certainly possible, other economic problems, such as corruption, may continue to serve as a disincentive for foreign investment. Such concerns may well mean that the anticipated increase in investment will also not be enough to cover the cost of the project.
In a nation lacking in investment in many crucial areas, including healthcare and education, many argue that projects like the TGV do not represent the most politically expedient allocation of funds. Some speculate that the high-speed rail network will benefit only the small percentage of the population who can afford to use the service, or who work for businesses who will benefit from the network’s existence. At around 250 MAD ($26) per second-class ticket from Tangier to Casablanca, TGV travel is far from affordable for ordinary Moroccan citizens, whose average salary is around $400 per month, often for a sole breadwinner in a household.
“For sure Morocco also needs hospitals and schools, but putting money in infrastructure that helps people move around must be a good thing.”
Those involved in the project, however, stress the positives it will bring: “I think that constructing public transport is always a good thing,” Germain Van Rossum, a French engineer who worked on the project, told Inside Arabia. “For sure Morocco also needs hospitals and schools, but putting money in infrastructure that helps people move around must be a good thing.”
Future Development and Expansion
The Moroccan TGV project could be the first step in the plan for a trans-Maghreb high-speed rail line, with running speeds of 220 km/h (137 mph), linking Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. According to Yacine Ben Jaballah, General Director of National Company of Rail Transportation (SNTF) in Algeria, the project is expected to begin in Rabat or Casablanca and terminate in Tunis, stopping in Algiers along the way. In March 2011, contracts were awarded for a 130 km (81 mi) section of railway between Oued Tlélat (Northern Algeria) and the Moroccan border. The deadline for completion of the network is 2035.
Morocco’s long-awaited TGV project serves as yet another example of Morocco leading the way in infrastructure among African nations.