Africa’s First High-Speed Train to Launch in Morocco 2018
Morocco’s gears are churning hard, with a singular focus on launching a high-speed train. This train, which will run from Tangier to Morocco’s economic capital, Casablanca, is scheduled to debut June next year and will cut travel time between the two cities to a little over 2 hours (compared with three-and-a half hours by car). When this train does debut (it’s been plagued by construction and infrastructure delays so far), it will be the first high-speed train for both Morocco and the continent.
This project has been in development for over a decade and though originally scheduled to launch in December 2015, its launch date has been moved to 2018 given delays. The double-decker trains, similar to the TGV if you’ve ever taken the train in France, are made by France and the trains can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour – not a lot when compared with many developed countries but better than the current mode of transportation and what exists anywhere in Africa today.
Fares for the train are yet to be announced but speculation says that tickets will likely be more expensive than the average Moroccan can afford, ultimately reserving the use of the train for high-end customers – a perception that the Moroccan authorities are determined to disprove because their intent, so far at least, is to run trains intended for average Moroccans and tailored to their purchasing power (we’ll see how realistic this is). The cost of the project is $1.9 billion and it took not one government or two, but five – Morocco, France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (three of which have very deep pockets)- to get it funded.
Testing has begun and it’s hoped that the trains, when do they launch, will stimulate economic growth, boost Morocco’s profile and attract more tourists and foreign investment into the country. For example, it’s said that Peugeot, the automaker, is considering creating a plant in Kenitra, so if the high-speed train passes through the city, it’ll create a logistics hub for the company. When the trains do run, it’s estimated that they will convey six million passengers annually, after the first three years of operation (compared with three million currently); a volume that’s expected to enable the government operate the train on a positive margin that exceeds that of conventional trains, while helping to offset (or justify, depending on your perspective) the cost of the project.
This project fits in with other high-end projects taking place in Morocco and on the continent such as the solar power plant being built in Morocco, the solar-powered airport in South Africa and the mammoth railway network being built in west Africa; all efforts designed to stimulate sluggish economies and drive much-needed growth.
A high-speed train is great news but at what cost? Stats show Morocco’s educational system lagging those of its peers with national literacy pegged at 56.1% – meaning that only ~half of the population can read and write. What about other public services? How developed are they? I raise these to question if basic public services are in place and running somewhat sufficiently such that they’re able to support the current and growing population while funds are spent on a high-speed train which may take years to yield positive economic returns.
Speaking of returns, assuming the projected number of six million passengers does not materialize, what happens then? Is the government able to bear the cost of subsidies (because the train will have to be subsidized if ticket prices are to remain affordable for everyday Moroccans)? Questions I’m sure must have been considered and answered prior to this project being undertaken. Perhaps the plan is that this train will boost tourism to the extent that it not only attracts foreign investment and new jobs, but the income derived from it is able to finance projects in other sectors of the economy.
Though the presence of world-class transportation is great for attracting business, it doesn’t do a whole lot if the improved infrastructure is only between two cities, while the rest of the country wallows in bad roads and poor transportation networks. Having only one world-class train along the country’s coastline while the rest of the domestic economy remains broken isn’t very smart. So though the presence of a high-speed train will appeal to the investment-minded, it’s highly doubtful that that alone will make up for the rest of the basic economic viability that’s needed to sink foreign investment into the country.
Regardless of these misgivings, a high-speed train is certainly a positive development for Morocco and the continent at large and should hopefully help ease transportation concerns for commuters and casual passengers.