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 350km 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 more than two hours, with trains zooming along at up to 320kph.
Moroccan leaders have heralded the rail link as a key step in modernizing the country after last year’s Arab Spring uprisings ushered in a time of major political change across the region.
However, with a price tag of 25 billion dirhams (US$2.8 billion), an enormous sum in a country where more than half the population of 33 million live 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 (US$500 million) contract to deliver 14 TGVs that would go into service in Morocco in December 2015.
Detractors say the project unfairly favors French companies and in September, then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy attended a groundbreaking ceremony alongside Moroccan King Mohammed VI.
The plan is to eventually extend the high-speed line to Marrakesh and Agadir, officials have said.
Morocco is determined to modernize its infrastructure and the country’s economy is doing well by global standards, recording an impressive 5 percent growth on average in recent years.
However, rail opponents remind Moroccans that the country remains in 130th place out of the 187 countries measured by the UN’s 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 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 conventional lines or building the new TGV line.
“A high-speed line will cost 30 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 subsidizing 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 said that no more than a third of the contracts associated with the project will go to French firms.