Morocco's High-Speed Train Not Yet on Track

10:44 PM Aida Alami 0 Comments

By Aida Alami

CASABLANCA — The Moroccan government’s cherished ambition to build a fast train linking its major cities is running into trouble.

The plan has provoked a debate not only about the wisdom of the project but also about what form development should take in a country as poor as Morocco: Should it be embracing potentially transforming technology or should it stick to basics like building schools and hospitals? 

The high-speed rail link would be built with French help. It would link the country’s economic center, Casablanca, with the capital, Rabat, and Tangier, in the north. The project, expected to cost $4 billion, is to be financed by French loans and donations from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Under the agreement, originally concluded in 2007, French companies, including the power and transportation engineering group Alstom, would build and operate the system, known in France as a T.G.V., for Train à Grande Vitesse. As envisioned, the completed project would cut a journey of 350 kilometers, or 215 miles, from Casablanca to Tangier from 4 hours and 45 minutes to just over 2 hours.

Critics say that a Western European-style train system should not be a high priority in an impoverished country. Per capita income is just $2,850, according to the World Bank. Morocco ranks 130th among nations in human development, a United Nations study found.

“You just have to take a look at the record level of illiteracy in our country, our failing health care system and the level of isolation of some regions that still live like they are in the Middle Ages, to understand that it is better to invest urgently in these areas to ensure sustainable development for Morocco,” said Salma Bouchiba, a financial analyst at Société Générale in Casablanca. “It is also quite legitimate to require first the improvement and the upgrading of the existing rail network that is in terrible condition.”

Supporters say that the rail line would bridge regional divides and improve the economy in the country’s north while strengthening links between Casablanca and markets and financial centers in Western Europe. Critics say economic conditions are too tough for Morocco to afford the high-tech system.

A leading opponent is Omar Balafrej, a co-founder and president of the political association Clarity Ambition Courage. This group is part of a loose coalition of about 50 groups known as Stop TGV! Their efforts include petitions, demonstrations and public debate. Their activities have led the transportation minister, Abdelaziz Rebbah, to agree to debate the critics in Rabat.

Mr. Balafrej says there is no justification for the project, which would strain Morocco’s already stretched public finances. “Every 10 meters of the T.G.V. is the equivalent of the construction of a school in the rural area,” he said. “Morocco ranks second-to-last in the region in terms of human development. T.G.V. advocates tend to convey the idea that this project would be carried by the French and the Saudis, but this is false. These countries give loans, not grants, to Morocco. The debt burden of the country will be obviously dramatically affected.”

But supporters say the T.G.V. would create jobs and lure investors.

The O.N.C.F., the National Office for Railways, says the high-speed links are necessary to accommodate increasing numbers of rail travelers. Some 34 million people are expected to use the existing system this year, compared with 14 million in 2003. The TGV is likely to draw 6 million customers, its promoters say.

“It answers a true need of Morocco,” O.N.C.F.’s managing director, Mohamed Rabie Khlie, said recently.

Critics say fixing the shortcomings of the existing system should come first. Najib Akesbi, an economist who teaches at the Institute of Agronomy in Rabat, said: “In Morocco, 40 percent of the rural area is cut off, and there are no roads. During winter in some villages, people remain blocked for months because of bad weather.”

He added that since independence, in 1956, “the rail system has barely budged” and that “there is still just only one track connecting cities.”

The cost would be steep because much of the financing is coming on commercial terms rather than as aid. Morocco would be left with debt service of $100 million a year, according to a study by Cap Democracy Morocco, a student group.

The Stop TGV! campaign has a seemingly endless list of what could be built with the same budget, including 25,000 schools in rural areas, 25 fully equipped major university hospitals and 16,000 community centers.

Last October, Cap Democracy Morocco released a 30-page report analyzing the project’s economics and enabling Moroccan citizens to judge its merits for themselves. The report was written by Ahmed Damghi, a 25-year-old engineering student in Paris, who interned at Alstom and Veolia, both major French companies. He believes that the country could get a much better value by adjusting the existing system rather than undergoing a high-technology makeover that is unnecessary.

“Nobody can predict if it is going to be profitable or not,” Mr. Damghi said. “The decision should be made after a public debate and in a democratic manner.”

He noted that the bid had been awarded to Alstom without a competitive tender, even though there are other high-speed rail makers in Germany and Japan. The motivation, he argued, was to cozy up to France. “We all know that there are diplomatic motivations for this project,” said Mr. Damghi, “but they are not enough to justify undertaking a project that profits a small minority.”

Last September, at an inauguration event in Tangier to inaugurate the rail link project, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, welcomed recent political changes initiated by King Mohammed VI. The new Constitution gives more executive power to the government while keeping the king at the head of the cabinet. It won landslide approval in a referendum last July. But the decision to go ahead with the T.G.V. in 2007 was made without public involvement.

Mr. Balafrej, the president of Clarity Ambition Courage, said, “We simply want to stop this project, which is a symbol of a Morocco that we do not want — where the most important decisions, those that impact the daily lives of all citizens and future generations, are made without consultation or a public and democratic debate.”

You can read the story on the New York Times' website.

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