From trams to high-speed trains, North African governments are investing in rail infrastructure on a scale unparalleled since the networks were originally built by the colonial powers France, Spain and Italy.

Every country in the region is now developing or planning urban transport in major cities and modernising longer haul train services.

This heavy domestic project schedule is starting to fuel hopes of a revival for long neglected cross-border operations.

For decades, Maghreb states focused on building up road and air transport, particularly the expansion of links with Europe. Political differences stood in the way of developing an integrated North African regional rail system. Services that used to run between Tunis and Algiers were eventually abandoned.

A revival of cross-border rail links is now edging back onto the agenda, although it remains a secondary priority.

Within all Maghreb states, upgrade of the domestic networks has come to be seen as a vital element of modernisation, for economic, social and environmental reasons.

Domestic rail networks in the Maghreb

The Moroccan capital, Rabat, and the adjacent city of Sale, across the estuary of the Bouregreg – with a combined population of close to 3 million – will soon be served by a 31-station tram network. The tracks have already been laid and rolling stock delivered. Systems are currently being tested and drivers trained, and the network should begin operation around the end of this year.

Revival of cross-border rail links is edging back onto the agenda, although it remains a secondary priority

The project was first conceived in 1976, with preparatory studies launched six years later. However, it did not really get under way until 2003 when a new feasibility study was commissioned. The result was a plan for a 19km network, with two lines crossing the Bouregreg on a new bridge, and extending outwards on both sides of the river.

The system links major public facilities and centres of activity, such as rail stations, ministries, hospitals and university faculties to main residential areas. It will be able to carry 180,000 people a day.

The project has been jointly managed by the Rabat and Sale municipalities and the special agency charged with the urban development of the Bouregreg river valley.

Construction began in December 2007 and at first the public seemed sceptical about the usefulness of a scheme that is budgeted at a hefty MD4bn ($460m).

Development work has seriously disrupted traffic across the two cities. However, the Moroccan authorities say the effort will have been justified in the long run.

Besides the high-speed lines, Maghreb countries are also extending their conventional rail lines

The project will help to preserve Rabat’s position as a relatively smooth-running capital compared with the kingdom’s sprawling commercial hub, Casablanca. It will also provide a structural map around which to plan the future growth of the city and its neighbour, Sale.

Meanwhile, the government has been able to apply the lessons learnt in developing the Rabat project to the design of another tram system, for Casablanca itself.

Tramway awards in Morocco

In mid-August, Turkish contractor Yapi Merkezi won the first major construction contract for this ambitious scheme. It will build the platforms and lay tracks for a 30km section of line, estimated at $850m, running from Sidi Moumen to Hay Mohammadi.

Tender rounds for two other sections of the network, each of 10km, will be launched soon and eventually the network should extend to at least 76km.

As a partner of the Japanese consortium that has been building the Dubai metro, Yapi Merkezi had come to the Casablanca bidding competition with a high profile calling card.

Specialists from France have been heavily involved in the development of the Rabat-Sale and the Casablanca networks. Both will be operated with Citadis tramsets, designed by Alstom.

The lead consultant in planning both projects is also French – Systra, a joint venture between the national rail company SNCF and the operator of the Paris public transport system RATP. The Lyon transport authority has been appointed as a technical adviser to Rabat-Sale.

One of the key challenges facing the developers of the Moroccan systems has been the need to reconcile financial viability with the need to provide a system that most local people can actually afford.

But this may be less of an issue for countries that have booming oil and gas revenues. In Algeria, the affluent state has a long tradition of heavily subsidising infrastructure; in Libya, where a metro is planned for Tripoli, the government is even more strongly resourced. In neither case, is money or the need for commercial viability an absolute constraint.

The first plans for a metro in Algiers date right back to 1929. But although a series of proposals were put forward over subsequent decades, the implementation of these plans was repeatedly derailed by a combination of the city’s dramatic steep hillside geography, politics and conflict – the Second World War, the later war of independence and the struggle with militant Islamists in the 1990s.

The slow pace of decision-making in the bureaucratic Algerian state machine also delayed progress on the project.

Algiers metro

Construction work on a metro system for Algiers has now been under way for more than 15 years. The first 450-metre section was completed in 1994 and in 1999, Systra was appointed to manage the project, with Gaama, an Algerian/German joint venture carrying out much of the construction work.

In 2003 the government decided to restructure the organisation and funding of the scheme. It awarded key contracts to Siemens Transportation Systems; Vinci Construction Grands Projets and Dywidag International; and Construcciones y auxiliar de ferrocarriles.

There were hopes it might open this year, but in January, Transport Minister, Amar Tou, said the network will not begin operations until 2012.

The project has proved hugely challenging, thanks to the steep variations in terrain, and the difficulties of drilling through the rock on which Algiers is built.

Meanwhile, by the end of 2010, Tripoli Municipality and Libya’s state secretariat for public works are expected to issue a tender for a metro development contract. This will probably be for the first phase of a 41km line running from the airport through the city centre and out to the eastern district of Tajura.

Plans for the network, which would eventually extend to 104km and were first drawn up in 1994, were recently reviewed by the Hungarian specialists Tesco Consulting and Uvaterv.

Libya also has ambitious plans for long-distance railway development, with a 2,300km line set to run from the Tunisian border through Tripoli and Benghazi and on to the frontier with Egypt, and another 1,000km track extending to Sebha in the Sahara.

The scale of these schemes is such that Tripoli even hosted a special rail exhibition and conference in June, attracting companies from Austria, China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine and the US, among others.

Construction work has begun. Russian Railways are building the line from Sirt to Benghazi. The contract is worth e2.2bn ($2.8bn). A welding plant with the capacity to produce 500-700km of track a year was opened by the Russians in June. Trains will initially run at 160km/h, but speeds will rise to 250km/h once the line is fully electrified.

Tunisia and Morocco also have well advanced plans for high-speed rail lines.

In May, Morocco’s L’Office National des Chemins de Fer (ONCF) announced a MD32.8bn development programme, of which MD20bn is earmarked for a new high-speed rail route from Tangier to Casablanca; eventually this will be extended to Marrakech.

The first phase will entail the construction of 200km of new track, with trains using conventional track for the rest of the journey. This is an approach that the French successfully used to make an impact with high-speed rail as early as possible in their home market.

As with the tram projects, France will be heavily involved in development of Morocco’s high-speed rail.

Systra has been working on plans since 2007 and the French Treasury will provide MD6.8bn in preferential loan funding.

The balance of the finance will be MD5.5bn in other loans, grants of MD1.9bn, MD4.8bn from the government budget and MDh1bn from the Hassan I Fund for Economic and Social Development.

The government hopes that work can start this year, with construction of the track completed in late 2014, so that the line is ready for operational testing and use from the following year onwards.

Tunisia has revealed plans for 780km of high-speed rail, extending from Tunis to both the Algerian and Libyan borders. With its central location in the region, the country stands to benefit considerably from the eventual creation of a trans-Maghreb high-speed route.

The 1,200km ‘missing link’ in such a concept is Algeria, where the development of high speed services has been discussed in government but has not been a major priority.

In 2008, the state rail development agency Anesrif announced plans to commission studies for a high-speed rail route linking the Moroccan and Tunisia borders, via Algiers and later the following year it invited submissions from selected consultants. But this is clearly not the main focus of rail planning strategy.

Conventional schemes

Besides the high-speed lines, Maghreb countries are also extending their conventional rail lines. Morocco has already built a track from its main northern line up to the Mediterranean port of Nador and there are plans to extend the rail network south to Agadir, on the Atlantic coast, and even to Laayoune, in Western Sahara.

This year Tunisia should see the start of work on local lines from Tunis city to the suburb of Manouba and to Ezzouhour near Sousse.

But it is Algeria which is pressing ahead most ambitiously with the expansion of conventional rail routes.

Recently the colonial-era line to Bechar, in the north-western Sahara, opened again after being largely rebuilt. There are plans for an extension even further, to iron ore deposits at Gara Djebilet, near Tindouf.

Further network extensions are envisaged for other Saharan towns such as Ouargla and Ghardaia and for the interior high plateaux region.

The upgrade of the existing network is treated with equal importance through electrification and short but important route alterations to improve the capacity and efficiency of the system.