Rail transport in North Africa has a longer and more illustrious history than elsewhere in the region. During the 1830s, Mohammed Ali Pasha of Egypt proposed a railway between Suez and Cairo to improve trade links between India and Europe but acceded to pressure from the French to build a canal instead. 

Given the success of the Suez Canal and its massive impact on the regional economy, Mohammed Ali’s decision was probably right, but rail networks continued to expand throughout North Africa during the colonial era. The French influence from Morocco to Libya created a useful network hugging the Mediterranean coast, while British rule in Egypt saw track laid down the Nile delta.

In contrast to the GCC which is building a rail network for the first time, North Africa should therefore be well placed to take advantage of the surge of interest in rail throughout the region. Morocco has some 2,000 kilometres of track, Algeria 3,500km, Tunisia 2,000km, and Egypt about 5,000km.

However, these figures disguise the manner in which the region’s colonial rail legacy has been squandered over the subsequent decades of underinvestment since World War II, to the point where national rail networks have largely fallen into disrepair or been abandoned completely. Libya currently has no functioning rail service at all.

Economic reality

The region’s governments have now woken up to the fact that without functioning passenger and freight links around the country, their national rail infrastructure network is in danger of being permanently consigned to history and their economies will suffer as a result.

The high cost of air travel means it is out of reach for many. Moreover, North Africa’s oil producing states are, like those of the Gulf, looking to improve their industrial infrastructure, while the whole region is keen to capitalise on its appeal as a tourist destination. Rail investment is back in the spotlight.

“In North Africa we see very different markets and stages of development from country to country,” says Ala Ghanem, regional director for business development for UK rail group Invensys. “These countries have thousands of kilometres of Mediterranean coastline and new industrial projects to link to the ports and cities. It is not rocket science.”

Morocco has maintained the most sophisticated rail apparatus in the region and, as it has with aviation, is continuing to drive investment into the sector to underpin the country’s flourishing tourism industry.

The country hopes to be the first country in the Middle East to have a high-speed rail network on a par with Europe. The French group Alstom is building a high-speed rail link between Tangiers and Marrakech in a government-to-government deal worth about E2bn. The 200km first phase of the line, from Tangiers to Kanitra, is expected to be operational by 2013. The project forms the first part of a scheme to link all the country’s major cities by high-speed rail. One line will run down the Atlantic coast from Tangier to Casablanca, inland to Marrakech and on to Agadir. The other will run east from Rabat, via Fez, to Oujda on the Algerian border.

Other North African governments are following suit. In April, Algiers invited bids for a $1.5bn passenger and freight rail project, and launched a study for a critical $1bn oil-export railway in the south of the country.

The High Plateau railway will run from east to west across country, parallel with the Mediterranean coast. The work is split into four packages that will cover 630km of new track, with lines running from Moulay Slissen to Tiaret, from Tissemsilt to Boughezoul, from Relizane to Tissemsilt via Tiaret, and from Boughezoul to M’Sila.

L’Agence Nationale d’Etudes et de Suivi de la Realisation des Investissements Ferroviaires (Anesrif), the rail agency of the Transport Ministry, has also launched a feasibility study into the $1bn Boucle du Sud freight railway. The 800km line will run from Hassi Messaoud to Djelfa, linking key oil and gas facilities in the centre of the country, and connecting to existing lines running to the coast.

“We are working on projects for passengers and tourism, and industrial projects like the Boucle du Sud which will mean that oil can be exported much more quickly,” says an Anesrif official.

Libya too is investing revenues from the recent oil boom back into infrastructure. Lacking a rail service since the 1960s, Tripoli has struck deals with China Railway Construction Corporation to build a 352km coastal line from Khums to Sirte, and an 800km north-south line from Sebha to Misurata.

China’s leading railway contractor has won the bids to build two major railways in Libya, which together are worth about 3.2 billion dinars ($2.6 billion), according to the company. Russian Railways will extend the coastal line from Sirte to Benghazi as part of a $4.5bn debt forgiveness package agreed with Moscow in April last year.

Like Morocco, Tunisia has kept its existing network in better condition and is working on refurbishment. Talks are under way though for a link at the Libyan with a view to extending this into Egypt. [????]

Cairo is also emphasising redevelopment of existing track rather than spending scarce resources on greenfield projects. Not all the projects under way in North Africa require multi-billion dollar construction. The colonial legacy has clear advantages here, with an -existing infrastructure to build upon.

“You can get huge improvements from an existing system by just improving the signalling and telecoms systems to boost capacity on the track,” says one Dubai-based analyst.

“It is much quicker and much more cost-effective than building a new line from scratch, particularly in the current market.”

However, cost is not the only consideration. In many parts of North Africa, ageing rail systems are being pushed beyond their limits. Egypt in particular has witnessed a string of fatal accidents as signalling and crossings on single-track lines have fallen into disrepair causing head-on collisions between trains.

Line overhauls

Level crossings too have fallen into disrepair. Cairo has retendered a contract to overhaul the country’s 1,300 official crossings after bids came in substantially over budget. However, unofficial crossing points for farm traffic run the length of the Nile and the government has so far baulked at the cost of securing and upgrading the entire network.

In a move mirrored across North Africa, Alstom has completed upgrades to signalling and telecoms systems on a railway between Ennouasser and Jorf Lasfar in Morocco. In Algeria, Anesrif is retendering an $800m project to electrify the existing east-west rail line, which runs close to the coast, parallel to the planned route for the High Plateau project.

Like their Gulf counterparts, the heavy passenger and industrial rail of North Africa is being complemented by a surge of developments for inner-city metro projects. Cairo already boasts one of only three operating metro networks in the Middle East following Dubai’s recent inauguration in September.

In June, the state-owned National Authority for Tunnels awarded E453m ($639m) of contracts to three consortiums to build the second phase of the city’s third metro line. France’s Vinci Construction Grands Projets leads the consortium carrying out the E323m civil engineering contract. Alstom leads consortiums installing the signalling and points systems. When it opens fully in 2013, Line 3 will stretch 33km from Cairo International airport to Imbaba on the west bank of the Nile, with 29 stations (MEED 26:6:09).

After delays stretching back two decades Algiers is on the verge of opening the region’s fourth metro system this October, with final testing complete on the 9km first phase of Line 1, originally due to open in the summer. German group Dywidag has begun civil works on a E215m extension to the project between Hai el-Badr and El-Harrach. The work is expected to take almost three years to complete.

Meanwhile in May, the client on the project, the Entreprise de Metro d’Alger, invited bids for four design contracts on the metro worth more than $1bn in total. The four packages cover sections of Line 1, which is already under construction, and Line 2, which will extend the metro inland and eastwards following the coast.

Along the coast the story is the same. Tunis is building a $2.1bn express railway network around the capital. A commuter line with 66km of new track will link the city centre to the suburbs. Bidding is expected to open early in 2010, with a civil works contract awarded late next year.

Casablanca has begun development of a metro line, currently scheduled to open around 2017, while plans for a 104km three-line metro network in Tripoli, first designed in the mid-1980s and dormant for some 15 years, is now moving forward.

Financing these projects remains an issue, and even in the oil-rich states of Algeria and Libya, progress has not been as swift as seen in the Gulf. Egypt in particular, with its decayed infrastructure and labyrinthine bureaucracy, is struggling to fund its projects.

World Bank funding has been requested for work on the country’s signalling systems, while regulator Egyptian Railways is planning to offer packages of railway stations for privatisation. Contractors buying them will be able to build commercial facilities on the surrounding land in exchange for redeveloping the stations themselves, an approach used with limited success on the Tehran Metro.

With unemployment high across the region, revenues from these new railways remain uncertain. Raising fares will place rail travel out of the reach of ordinary citizens. Keeping prices low will mean it is a long time before the region’s railways began to pay for themselves.

There is much work to be done and many challenges remain, but after decades of underinvestment and decay, the railways of the Mediterranean coast are showing signs of a return to former glories.