Home » North African railways build on history and look to the future

North African railways build on history and look to the future

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Rail transport is not new to North Africa – in 1854, Egypt built the region’s oldest railroad, pioneering the country’s extensive rail network, and the capital, Cairo, has an underground metro. In 1878, the Souk Ahras-Ghardimaou line connected Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, although regional tensions led to Morocco and Algeria closing the line. Separately, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria all have a long history of successfully running intra-country railways. 

With North African governments setting ambitious climate targets against the backdrop of Egypt hosting COP 27, rail projects will continue to play a prominent role in decarbonising transport. In particular, extensive high-speed, high capacity rail projects and urban rail mobility schemes are in various stages of completion across the region to help meet these goals.

The 2019 Future of Rail report by the International Energy Agency, made bold projections for African railways. While the Covid-19 pandemic and inflation issues have had an impact on the progress of many projects, the report forecasts 17 billion passenger kilometres travelled across the continent by 2050 – the level of North African activity will make a solid contribution to this expected increase in rail use.

In Egypt, the government’s climate plan includes a seven percent reduction in transport sector emissions by 2030, including a shift towards low carbon mass transit options. Major rail projects currently underway in Egypt include the rehabilitation of a major Alexandria tram line, a 103.3km light rail train project, the Abu Qir-Alexandria railway electrification project, ongoing expansion and refurbishment of the Cairo Metro network, and a monorail project worth US$4.5 billion.   

In May 2022, Siemens Mobility signed a contract with the Egypt’s National Authority for Tunnels, Orascom Construction and Arab Contractors to build 2,000km of high-speed railways, with the three-line project expected to be the sixth-largest of its type in the world.

Dr Roland Busch, president and CEO of Siemens AG, says the project will “create thousands of local jobs and reduce CO2 emissions in transport.”

Michael Peter, Siemens Mobility CEO, says the network will “connect 60 cities and enable around 500 million journeys a year [linking] the country like never before [to] fight pollution and global warming, while also providing an effective and reliable method for the movement of goods.”

In Alexandria, trams have been operational since 1860 and the tram network was upgraded in the 1960s. The latest project, which commenced in 2020, involves improving Alexandria’s Raml-Victoria tram line to improve tracks and rolling stock, as well as shortening journey times and increasing passenger capacity to get more cars off the roads. This project has received a funding boost with the Egyptian government and the European Investment Bank providing 138 million euros as part of their Infrastructure Framework Agreement. This agreement is also providing 750 million euros to the Qir-Alexandria electrification project. 

Morocco opened a 323km high-speed rail link between Casablanca and Tangier in 2018, with trains supplied by Alstom. Since then, Alstom has increased its presence in Morocco with a plant in Fez that produces electrical train components. 

“Morocco is an important market for Alstom, and we are committed to working alongside our partners as they execute the country’s vision,” says Mehdi Sahel, managing director, Alstom Morocco. “We have a strong presence in the country with two production lines serving Alstom projects globally, with a plan to grow the rail industrial and engineering base further.”

As well as the Casablanca-Tangier project, Morocco is planning a high-speed network between the country’s major cities. ONCF, the country’s national railways office, has concluded a feasibility study on the first phase of a Rabat-Fez line. The first phase is a 150km line between Rabat and Meknes. An environmental and social impact assessment, as well as a financial evaluation, is the next step.

Morocco’s dynamic rail sector will receive a global boost in 2023 as the International Union of Railways has selected Marrakech to host the 11th World Congress on High Speed Rail. The event’s theme will be “High speed rail: The right speed for our planet”, with a focus on the role of rail in addressing climate change and socio-economic development.

In Algeria, three cities – Mostaganem, Oran and Sidi Bel Abbes – have all launched tram networks, the most recent being Mostaganem in January 2021. High-speed rail for Algeria, meanwhile, has received a funding injection from Qatar and Kuwait, more than a decade after plans were initially announced. The two GCC states will be investing in a range of Algerian infrastructure projects covering transport, agriculture, urban planning and property.

The Algerian government has not announced a timetable for works or revealed an exact figure for the investment, but it will include a 700km line from the capital Algiers to Tamanrasset in the south, and a 190km line between Algiers and Adrar in the south-west.

“This project will improve links within our cities as more than 70 percent of the country’s 44 million people live in urban cities,” Al Tayib Shabab, the head of Algeria’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told Algerie Presse Service.

In May 2022 at a railway conference in Abu Dhabi, Lotfi Chouba, CEO of RFR, Tunisia’s state rail company, announced it had completed the first phase of an 86km suburban rail network project for the capital, Tunis. The first phase comprised two lines, with work now underway to connect the eastern part of the city.  Chouba also told the conference that legislation has passed for the development of a public-private partnership high-speed rail project to connect the eastern and western parts of Tunisia. The project is part of a bigger development, the Trans-Maghreb High Speed Rail Network, which aims to connect Casablanca, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, with the Tunisian section covering 840km. It is expected to take many years to complete the international connections, particularly given challenging global economic conditions and geopolitical tensions in Libya. For now, the main focus is on individual countries working to complete their internal high-speed networks.

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