Getting from A to B faster: A high-speed railway will improve connectivity and reduce travel times

Investments in the transport network in the north of Morocco over the past decade have allowed the economy of the Tangiers-Tétouan area to grow exponentially. The upgrade of the highway and rural road network, expansion of the region’s main airport, and the construction of a railway that connects the industrial zones directly to the Tanger-Med port have helped to spur construction activity and improve the region’s investment attractiveness. Nor is this likely to change any time soon. A handful of transport infrastructure projects are planned for the near term; of these, the implementation of Morocco’s national high-speed railway (ligne de grande vitesse, LGV) stands to have a significant impact on the Tangiers-Tétouan region. The national railway company, Office National des Chemins de Fer (ONCF) launched an LGV strategy in 2005 that aims to construct 1500 km of high-speed lines by 2035.

Work was launched in late 2010 on the Tangiers-Casablanca segment, which is considered a top priority given the rapid expansion of investment, industrial production and maritime trade in Tangiers.

TANGIERS-CASABLANCA: The LGV project represents a major investment by the national rail operator, but will rely heavily on private partners. The ONCF has outlined a total public and private investment budget of Dh33.8bn (€3bn) between 2010 and 2015, of which Dh20bn (€1.8bn) will be devoted to the LGV.

The first project under this strategy consists of a dual-track line stretching along the Atlantic coast from Casablanca to the capital of Rabat, the growing industrial town of Kénitra, and on to Tangiers. The train will be built for a maximum capability of 350 km per hour, and operated in its initial stage at 320 km per hour.

The potential economic benefits are considerable. The LGV will reduce travel time between Casablanca and Tangiers, the country’s top two industrial hubs, from nearly five hours to two hours and 10 minutes; travel between Tangiers and Rabat will be reduced to just 1.5 hours. Work was launched in 2010 on the first segment of this line, a 200-km stretch between Tangiers and Ké nitra, which is slated to begin operation in 2016. Mohamed Rabie Khlie, the CEO of ONCF, indicated to the local press in February 2014 that project was 57% complete. Rail officials estimate that once fully operational, the LGV will increase passenger traffic on this line from 2m to 8m people per year.

ACCELERATING GROWTH: The construction of a high-speed connection along the Atlantic coast responds to the needs of Morocco’s developing industrial sector. Several industrial zones are being developed nationwide under the National Pact for Industrial Emergence. Several of these parks, such as the Tangiers Free Zone, the Atlantic Free Zone in Kenitra and Midparc in Casablanca, have free zone status, which means that they are dedicated to export and benefit from a set of incentives. After Casablanca, Tangiers is the country’s second-largest industrial hub in terms of production and foreign direct investment. Rather than being dedicated to one hub or another, several of the country’s major industrial operations are developing across multiple platforms. Tangiers benefits from its expanding port complex, available industrial space and proximity to Europe, which speed up processing and export times. However, the region lacks the human resource potential of major population centres in Rabat, Salé, Kénitra and Casablanca. A number of manufacturing firms, including US-based aeronautics firm Lear and Sumitomo Electrics Bordnetze Morocco, a subsidiary of Japan’s Sumitomo that manufactures vehicle cables, have expanded their operations to Kénitra in recent years in order to be closer to the trained human resource pool.

Still others are pushed to seek new industrial space, either as zones such as the TFZ in Tangiers near saturation, or to capitalise on the complementarity between the TFZ and Casablanca’s Midparc, both of which have developed a speciality in the aeronautics industry. The level playing field created by the standard free zone incentives has encouraged the trend of “colocalisation”. The LGV will ensure faster connections between key industrial sites on the Atlantic coast, helping to reduce transport costs and boost the attractiveness of the Tanger-Med port. Omar Moro, president of the Tangiers Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told OBG, “The installation of the LGV should help to revolutionise rail travel in Morocco and provide the region with transport infrastructure that meets international norms, in response to growing demand for both passenger and freight traffic between the country’s top two industrial centres, Tangiers and Casablanca.”

The LGV’s development will help to boost freight capacity on conventional rail lines. The LGV will be dedicated to passenger transport, which will allow ONCF to convert some conventional rail capacity to cargo. ONCF’s 2010-15 plan includes financing to adapt and upgrade the existing conventional rail lines.

PRIVATE PARTNERS: The LGV project benefits from significant private sector participation. A partnership agreement signed with France in 2007 established the broad outlines of the LGV’s concept, construction and financing. The project was officially launched in September 2011 by King Mohammed VI and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Construction of the first phase of the LGV between Tangiers and Kénitra will require investment of Dh20bn (€1.8bn). The Moroccan government has committed to providing €500m and will look to private sector partners, foreign governments and financial institutions for the remaining funds. France is expected to provide just over half of project financing, including €700m in government loans and subsidies and another €220m via the Agence Française de Développement. The remaining €380m will come from several Gulf funds: the Saudi, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi Funds for Development, as well as the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. On the technical side, support has also been provided by France’s private sector railway operator, Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français, which sent a team of technical specialists to advise on the conceptualisation and execution of the project.

French firms were awarded the majority of contracts related to the execution of the line, which prompted some discontent in the early stages of the project about the openness of the bidding process. Regardless, Morocco stands to benefit from French expertise in the high-speed rail segment, and local authorities are working to promote collaboration and knowledge transfer with Moroccan firms. French firm Colas was awarded the €124m contract to build the Tangiers-Kenitra segment. Colas recently executed the tramway projects in Casablanca and Rabat. Two other French firms, Systra and Egis, were awarded the contracts to perform studies and provide engineering services.

LOCAL BENEFITS: The French transport engineering firm Alstom was contracted to provide 14 high-speed trains to serve the new line, for a total cost of €400m. Alstom has been an important foreign partner of Morocco’s rail system in the past, manufacturing trains for conventional railways and urban tramway systems. The high-speed trains will primarily be constructed in France; however, to ensure that the projects benefit local economic actors, the state has outlined a tentative project with Alstom to establish a manufacturing plant in one of Morocco’s industrial zones. This facility would specialise in the fabrication of railway cables and other electrical components for domestic consumption and export. ONCF also plans to construct a workshop for LGV train car maintenance in the Moghogha industrial zone in Tangiers, which should ultimately help to develop expertise in the field.

In terms of employment, construction of the Casablanca-Tangiers line and related infrastructure is expected to create a total of 30m workdays. During the exploitation phase, the line is expected to create 2500 direct and indirect jobs, including 450 engineers, of which 250 will be Moroccan.

FUTURE PLANS: In future stages, ONCF plans to extend the Tangiers-Casablanca line further south to Essaouira and Agadir. A continuous high-speed connection along the length of Morocco’s coast has potential for the development of the tourism industry, given the attraction of beachside resorts in the south. In the future, ONCF also plans to build a second LGV line linking Casablanca and Rabat to Oujda, the capital of the Oriental province near the border with Algeria.

For the time being, the closure of the Morocco-Algeria border limits the possibilities for intra-Maghreb trade and tourism. However, the LGV strategy includes a component for the connection of the east-west line with other Maghreb capitals in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. While this must be considered a blue-sky project, the possibility of a trans-Maghreb railway offers considerable potential for the transit of goods and passengers from the port of Tangiers into the sub-region.

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The Report: Morocco 2014

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