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High-speed train opponents seek to derail Morocco project

Source : | 4 June 2012 |  News, Politics | 2320 views

By Henri Mamarbachi (AFP)

RABAT — Seven months after work officially began on the Arab world’s first high-speed railway, opponents of the Moroccan project are building up steam, claiming the cash should be spent to help the poor.

The 350-kilometre (215-mile) connection between Casablanca and Tangiers, via the capital Rabat, will slash journey times between the north African country’s economic hubs from nearly six hours to just over two hours, with trains zooming along at up to 320 kilometres per hour (200 mph).

Moroccan leaders have heralded the rail link as a key step in modernising the country after last year’s Arab Spring uprisings ushered in a time of major political change across the region.

But with a price tag of 25 billion dirhams (2.3 billion euros, $2.8 billion), an enormous sum in a country where more than half the population of 33 million lives in poverty, opponents are working to derail the project.

“It’s not a priority for Morocco,” said Omar Balafrej, a member of the “Stop TGV” anti-train collective.

The group gets its name from the French abbreviation for high-speed trains, and the TGV initials are used primarily by the French national rail operator SNCF.

“Twenty-five billion dirhams? That’s the equivalent of 25,000 rural schools, 16,000 libraries, 10,000 media libraries and 25 university hospital centres,” Balafrej said.

The French firm Alstom has signed a 400-million-euro ($500 million) contract to deliver 14 TGVs that would go into service in Morocco in December 2015.

Detractors say the project unfairly favours French companies and in September, France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy attended a groundbreaking ceremony alongside Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

The plan is to eventually extend the high-speed line to Marrakesh and Agadir, officials have said.

Morocco is determined to modernise its infrastructure and the country’s economy is doing well by global standards, recording an impressive five-percent growth on average in recent years.

But rail opponents remind Moroccans that the country remains in 130th place out of the 187 countries measured by the United Nations’ international development index, and that many regions are not serviced by any trains, let alone high-speed ones.

Officials have promised ticket prices will remain the same as today — about 12 euros ($15) for a standard fare.

A public debate between opponents and the Moroccan rail office, the ONCF, was cut short a few weeks ago when activists handed out fliers accusing the project of waste, corruption and theft.

“Insults are not the best way to discuss this,” ONCF said.

Rail officials say the line between Tangier and Casablanca is already at capacity, and the country had to choose between doubling traditional lines or building the new TGV line.

“A high-speed line will cost thirty percent more, but the socio-economic benefits are so much better,” rail director Mohamed Rabie Khlie said, noting “opportunities for growth and wealth creation” and improved rail safety.

Officials say the state is not subsidising construction of the rail link, with France and Arabian Gulf countries loaning 60 percent of the project’s costs.

Opponents are skeptical about the Alstom contract, and have cited a lack of transparency in negotiations, as well as pointing to an overall bias for the French.

Moroccan rail officials deny any “presents” to its former colonial master and note that no more than a third of the contracts associated with the project will go to French firms.

France is Morocco’s top trading partner, absorbing 25 percent of its exports.

On May 15, the February 20 Movement, which is demanding sweeping political reforms in Morocco, called on new French President Francois Hollande to terminate the project, saying it was unfair and elitist.

But with contracts awarded and work under way, no one is expecting the project to be shelved.

By 2035, Morocco hopes to have built a total of 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) of rail lines and to have added to its motorway network.

Africa boasts one other high-speed link — South Africa’s $3.8-billion (three-million euro) Gautrain, which has run at more modest speeds of 160 kph (100 mph) between Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria since early August.

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