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Morocco’s High-Speed Train Not Yet on Track

Source : | 19 April 2012 |  World | 1408 views

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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.”

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