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Morocco | Africa’s first high speed railway

Colas rail maroc 10

Morocco is building a high speed railway. Morocco, you say? Yes, Morocco. Why? Hard to say really.

It is an interesting contrast to the UK where the business case for High Speed 2 has been scrutinised, challenged and adjusted time and time again. And still it’s not being built.

Yet in Morocco, there really isn’t much of a business case, or at least not what the UK Treasury would constitute as one. The demand is largely untested, with the $50 fare for a journey between the capital Rabat and the booming port of Tangier the equivalent of a week’s wages to the average Moroccan. Business travel between Tangier and Rabat is growing for sure, but only enough to warrant one train an hour when the first phase of the line opens at the end of next year.

But Morocco’s leaders have a vision for the country to grow economically, through its transportation infrastructure. And they are delivering on that vision. Tangier has its TangerMed port, one of the largest hubs for container ships in the Mediterranean. Rabat has a new airport. Free flowing toll roads link Tangier, Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh. Rabat even has a tram, although it appears do little to tackle chronic congestion at peak times. So a high speed rail network is, arguably, the next logical step.

Colas rail maroc 07

Colas rail maroc 07

Ballast layers laid using road-based plant

Logical, but bold. After all, this will not just be Morocco’s first true high speed railway, but the first in the whole of Africa. So for those involved, this is one good place to be building a reputation for delivery – as the evidence suggests, this will not be the last project in that part of the world.

“We are not here to do one project and go home,” observes Colas Rail project director Pierre-Gilles Douriez. Colas is laying track and installing the electrification infrastructure for the €2.3bn (£1.98bn) project in a contract worth £115M.

This first 185km phase will run from Tangier on the Mediterranean coast south to Kenitra, an Atlantic coast port about 50km north of Rabat. Design speed is 320km/h and will slash journey times from a timetabled three hours 15 minutes on the existing single track line to just 47 minutes.

Morocco2 cropped

Morocco2 cropped

From there the high speed trains will run on existing conventional rail lines to Rabat and Casablanca, cutting journey times. But there are already advanced plans to extend the high speed line to Rabat and to build an entirely new line from tourist hotspot Agadir in the far south up to Marrakesh and on to connect into the conventional rail network –  creating a seamless rail link from Tangier in the north to Agadir in the south.

The entire 1,500km line is slated for completion in 2035 and is part of a wider North-African inter-governmental strategy to connect this line to a high-speed network ending in the Libyan city of Tripoli via Algiers, in Algeria and Tunis in Tunisia.

“This phase will run to Kenitra,” notes Douriez. “But phase two to extend the high speed line to Rabat and then the Agadir to Marrakesh section could happen very fast as they are thinking about it.”

Critical path

But that’s for the future. For now, Colas Rail is on the critical path, picking up the baton passed on by eight different civils contracts and pushing to lay track and install electrification equipment. It’s doing the job in joint venture with Colas Rail Morocco and Egis.

Building Africa’s first true high speed railway has meant plentiful engineering challenges. More than 250 civil engineering structures feature along the route including 10 viaducts, one of which – at 3.5km – is thought to be Africa’s longest.

Given all that, it is not entirely surprising that civils work did fall behind schedule in places and so it is up to Colas to pick up the pace. It will then hand over to Ansaldo to install the signalling and Vinci subsidiary Cegelec to power it up.

Colas rail maroc 01 cropped

Colas rail maroc 01 cropped

Catenary fixing along one of the project’s nine viaducts

And signs are, Ansaldo and Cegelec need to be ready as Colas is cracking on. While setting a programmed target of progressing at 1,000m a day it has achieved far more than that.

“We actually did 3,564m of track bed in one eight hour shift,” says Douriez. “Just to see what we could do.”

The principal work base is in Kenitra with a secondary base in Tnine de Sidi el Yamani to the north. Both were chosen for their proximity to the highway and existing rail network for deliveries – and for having space to stockpile the colossal 2Mt of ballast that will be needed for the conventionally ballasted line.

Storage space

“We need plenty of storage space as we are using 130,000t of ballast a month,” explains production manager Chalamont Colas (he uses Chalamont as his formal name for obvious reasons). It wouldn’t do for work to be held up by delays in ballast delivery.

These bases represent the logistics centres of the project from which all activities are controlled and recorded: whether that’s planning engineering train movements or assembling the catenaries in the on-site factory.

“If you want to build a kilometre a day you have to be planned. We are working 24/7 and it’s a logistical challenge,” notes Douriez.

The project is not operating within the remits of building information modelling (BIM) per se, and 2D print outs are very much the order of the day when it comes to drawings of the catenaries. But all kit installed on the railway is barcoded, recorded and put into an electronic database such that it can be used in operations and maintenance.

We are doing most work by road and the absolute minimum by train as it is quicker and cheaper

Chalamont Colas, Colas

Out on site, Colas has replicated the work process it has used successfully on the Nîmes to Montpelier high speed line in the south of France. Its first move was to lay an asphalt surface along the length of the line. This means that catenaries can be erected and then the track bed laid using road-based rather than rail-based plant. The only thing laid by rail is the continuously welded rail itself.

“We are doing most work by road and the absolute minimum by train as it is quicker and cheaper,” says Chalamont. It also provides the opportunity to refine the manufacture and installation of the catenaries, ensuring that they are installed right first time with no need for remeasurement.

As-built survey

“Because we are laying both the track and the catenaries, the first thing we did was survey the track bed as built. Any variances to design were reported and we were able to adjust the height of the catenaries accordingly,” explains Douriez.

It sounds obvious, but it is the first time that Colas has done that and it had reaped benefits, says Douriez.

Skills could have been a problem on the project but Colas has invested heavily in upskilling the local workforce.

“Eighty-five per cent of those working on the project didn’t have railway systems skills before they started,” says Chalamont. “But we have trained them up. We have even trained the trainers, so even they are Moroccan,” he adds. In total almost 1,400 workers have been trained up by Colas and approaching 30 apprentices have worked themselves towards professional qualification standard.

Colas has also taken a proactive role in keeping locals residents off the line – and particularly inquisitive school children. Events have been run at several schools along the route, with the aim of making students – and their teachers – aware of the different risks at various stages of construction and operation.

It all means that as of October the line was 40% complete, bang on schedule for testing and commissioning work to begin in February and all for work to finish in October 2017??. Trains are planned to start running in January 2018.

Funding

The project is being directly financed by the Moroccan government and delivered by Moroccan railway authority ONCF, albeit with a hefty French contribution in terms of cash and creativity. The Moroccan government is in fact only putting up around €440M of the €2.3bn (£1.98bn) cost, with a €180M (£150M) contribution coming from the French government and various loans making up the rest.

The French cash has ensured the project is being designed to French railway standards, and Colas is far from the only French firm on the project. French engineering firms Systra and Egis are designers and construction managers on the project, that after the basic design study was completed by Systra in December 2009.The trains are being supplied by French train builder Alstom.

But there is pan-European involvement, with signalling being supplied and installed by Italian Ansaldo.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Is it me but is that hill inthe picture steep? also the rails are not straight!

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