Special Report Contents

  • Morocco moves forward with heavy transport infrastructure investment
  • Tunisia aviation and tourism sector under strain as a result of recent security crisis
  • Political challengees faces rail industry in Algeria and Morocco

Transport strategy is a picture of contrasts across today’s Maghreb. While Morocco presses forward with big-budget, hi-tech infrastructure investments, Tunisia is struggling to sustain the viability of a sector shaken by a security crisis and resulting slowdown in tourism.

Algeria, meanwhile, steers a steady middle course, expanding its conventional rail network and long-distance highways, focusing on both national needs and its strategic location as a bridge between the Mediterranean and West Africa.

In transport development, the Maghreb states are marked as much by policy differences as shared interests or approaches. But overall, this is an era of heavy investment in transport infrastructure across the region.

Tunisian challenges

The Libyan crisis poses particular problems for the development of Tunisia’s transport networks.

While the Gaddafi regime was in power, plans were drawn up for a 2,300-kilometre rail line linking Egypt to Tunisia, which appeared set to become a North African gateway to Europe. A €2.2bn ($2.4bn) contract was awarded to Russian Railways in 2008 to build a high-speed line between Sirte and Benghazi, but construction was suspended when the revolution began, after just 30km of track had been laid.

The chaos in Libya has left the Tunisian government struggling to manage security threats

The chaos in Libya has left the Tunisian government struggling to manage security threats and embarking on construction of a wall along the border with its eastern neighbour to curb the movement of jihadist militants and weapons.

Moreover, Tunisia’s transport sector has had to cope with slumps in foreign visitors in the wake of the revolution of 2011 and the terror attacks of recent months. Airlines in particular are struggling.

Pressure from the International Air Transport Association forced a halt to the operation of the private sector Syphax Airlines at the end of July, after it had failed to meet financial commitments. The airline only launched in 2012.

National carrier Tunisair has also been under strain, with a 5 per cent drop in passenger numbers in 2014, but understandably, the government regards the airline as a strategic economic asset.

The authorities are underwriting bank loans to finance the company’s acquisition of three aircraft: two Airbus A330s and an A320. Loan guarantees were formally approved by parliament on 5 August.

Despite the current crisis, there is scope for Tunisair to grow, particularly in developing transit traffic between Europe and west and central Africa through its Tunis hub.

Airline competition

But there will be tough competition from Royal Air Maroc, which has led the field in developing transit traffic between Africa, Europe and North America.

Royal Air Maroc is preparing to more than double its fleet size to 105 aircraft by 2025, including five Boeing 787 Dreamliners already ordered, with the first arriving later this year. To replace its ageing B747, the company is pondering the choice between an A380 Airbus or a B747-8 – which would maintain its current all-Boeing policy.

A new strategic partnership and code-sharing deal with Qatar Airways will underpin the September launch of thrice-weekly services to Doha. This will link Royal Air Maroc’s dense network of African connections to Qatar Airways’ coverage of Asia.

Air Algerie is also stepping up its presence in the transit market, after announcing the launch of 10 new African routes during 2015 and 2016. This expansion drive is underpinned by the €550m acquisition of 16 new aircraft, with the second of three A330-200s ordered in January 2014 having already been delivered.

But the Algerian carrier has a lot of catching up to do: only next year will it begin flights to Douala and Yaounde in Cameroon – a market that Royal Air Maroc has already been serving for 10 years.

Moreover, even after its recent expansion, Algiers airport offers much more limited facilities than the well-developed hub at Casablanca.

Rail advances

Morocco has also led the Maghreb in modernising rail transport, with the construction of Africa’s first high speed line (Ligne de Grande Vitesse – LGV). The 350km route will link Tangier to Kenitra, Rabat and Casablanca.

State rail operator, Office National des Chemins de Fer (ONCF) has experienced delays with the project due to technical difficulties and disputes with some owners of land that had to be acquired to complete the route. Services are now expected to begin in 2017, two years behind the original schedule.

The delay is a minor setback for a project that could have major benefits for Morocco’s image among investors.

In numbers

2,300km Length of railway planned during Gaddafi regime to link Egypt to Tunisia

320km/h Top speed of trains on Africa’s first high-speed line in Morocco

Source: MEED

To critics who suggest it is an extravagance, ONCF has responded by pointing out that additional line capacity on the key Casablanca-Tangier axis was required anyway. Moreover, it has also been upgrading and expanding other parts of the conventional network, such as the lines from Marrakech to Settat and from Fes to Oujda, near the Algerian border.

The new line has freed up scope for improvements to the existing conventional route between the two cities, which needs to accommodate a major increase in container freight, with the rapid expansion of Morocco’s Tanger-Med container terminal.

Indeed, both projects illustrate the way Morocco has identified strategic transport projects that are genuinely transformative in opening up new opportunities for the wider economy.

The LGV could boost Morocco’s attraction for investors and tourists, facilitate a geographical diversification of economic activity to secondary centres such as Kenitra, and stimulate the growth of transport engineering and service businesses.

Shipping links

In a similar way, the Tanger-Med container transshipment port exploits Morocco’s natural geographical advantage at the junction of key shipping routes along the eastern seaboard of the Atlantic and through the Mediterranean.

By providing major shipping lines a hub to transship between long-distance routes, the port has also enhanced the range of services available to Morocco’s own exporters and importers, and boosted the country’s appeal as a location for new industrial investors.

Algeria too is seeking to exploit its location, with plans for a new trans-Maghreb line right across the country from the Moroccan frontier to the border with Tunisia.

Political hurdles will have to be overcome, however. Although train services have sometimes operated from Tunis to Algiers, the chilly state of relations between Algeria and Morocco has kept the land border between the two countries closed for decades.

Proposals for trans-Maghreb services were floated a decade ago, but President Abdelaziz Bouteflika felt that the time was not yet ripe for such a fundamental transformation in relations with Rabat.

A trans-Maghreb route looks more viable, even if political hurdles prevent operation… as far as Morocco itself

However, in 2014, Algeria’s Transport Minister Amar Ghoul said tenders for the route would soon be issued, and work on technical studies was launched. Then in April this year Yacine Ben Jaballah, managing director of the state rail company Societe National des Transport Ferroviaires (SNTF), confirmed that plans for the route were going ahead.

It is understood that trains would run at 220 kilometres an hour (km/h) – well short of Morocco’s 320km/h LGV, but still a huge improvement on the 120km/h at which most current Algerian trains travel.

Algeria has already begun upgrading its rail network. On 29 July, France’s Alstom announced that it had received a €200m order from SNTF to supply 17 inter-city trains.

The government has ambitious plans to extend southern sections of the network – and the line from Oran to Bechar, on the edge of the Sahara, has already been modernised and reopened. But with state budgets under pressure after last year’s fall in oil prices, prospects for further projects in the thinly peopled south look unclear.

If hard choices have to be made, a trans-Maghreb route looks more viable, even if political hurdles prevent the operation of through trains as far as Morocco itself.

The project might be entrusted to China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, a subsidiary of China Railway Construction Corporation, which has been reported to have discussed a $13bn framework contract with Algeria.

Algeria has already completed an east-west motorway that could become the main trans-Maghreb road route if the frontier eventually opens.

And the country is pressing forward with completion of a tarmac highway across the Sahara, which will eventually connect with the road network in Mali.

For the moment, insecurity in the Sahel may inhibit the development of routine through traffic on southern parts of this route. But if the threat of jihadist terrorism in northern Mali can be overcome, then Algeria could establish itself as a gateway for road freight between Europe and West Africa.

Urban transport

While grandiose long-distance projects grab international attention, Maghreb governments are giving equal priority to the development of local transit networks for their rapidly growing urban conurbations.

Casablanca drew up plans for a 15km overground metro network, set to open in 2018. The project ran into cost problems, however, and in July last year city councillors voted to abandon the idea and instead expand the city’s tram system. The first 31km line opened in 2012; four additional tramlines, totalling 80km, are now planned.

Rabat already has two tram lines and networks are planned for Fes and Marrakech.

Algiers’ first 9.5km metro line opened in November 2011 and four extensions, totalling 29km, are under development.

Algeria sees trams as a way of rapidly meeting transport needs in provincial cities at a reasonable cost. It has drawn up proposals for 14 networks.

In today’s constrained financial climate some of these could be postponed, but some are going ahead already. Contracts for two schemes were awarded in 2013: Yapi Merkezi of Turkey is building a €420m network in Sidi Bel Abbes; while a consortium of Alstom and Spain’s Rover Alcisa-Assignia-Elecnor are building the €320m tram system for the Saharan metropolis Ouargla.

In May this year, Cital, a joint venture of Alstom, Algeria’s Ferrovial and the Algiers Metro, inaugurated a factory at Annaba to build 350 tramcars by 2025.

Meanwhile, Tunisia has opted for urban rail to cater for the needs of the sprawling Tunis conurbation.

Under a €145m contract, financed partly by the European Investment Bank and the Agence Francaise de Developpement, Colas Rail and Siemens are building the first two lines of the new network. Eventually there will be five lines, totalling 86km.

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