Sunday, April 22, 2012

Morocco's Transport Minister Steps up to the Challenges

At a time when several of the new government's ministers are causing concern  due to controversial statements, it is good to report that another minister is behaving in a responsible manner.  Unlike the Communications Minister, or the Justice Minister, who have both been criticised for overt Islamist stances rather than public interest, the new transportation minister, Abdelaziz Rebbah, is receiving praise for his level headed approach in the face of strong criticism over a proposed high-speed rail link between Tangier and Casablanca. 

Unveiled by King Mohammed VI and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in September, the line between the port of Tangiers and the commercial capital of Casablanca, a distance of about 300 kilometers (185 miles). Critics had called it wasteful and it was feared the new government would drop the project.

“The high speed train is one of the best ways to improve Morocco’s competitiveness.” - Transport Minister Abdelaziz Rebbah

After walking out of a debate over the merits of $3 billion planned high speed rail network, Morocco’s transportation minister defended the project Saturday as vital to the country’s development.Transport Minister Abdelaziz Rebbah and the head of the railroad Rabie Khlii had originally agreed to debate the merits of the project on Thursday with an organization of critics known as Stop TGV, for the French acronym for high speed train. He stormed out of the meeting after he said the critics were distributing insulting literature.

“The debate has to be civilized,” he told reporters.

“We are no longer speaking just about the competitiveness of companies, but also the competitivity of states,” he said. “The high speed train is one of the best ways to improve Morocco’s competitiveness.”

The no-bid project was awarded to France, which will be funding 38 percent of the project with the rest covered by loans from oil-rich Arab countries of the Gulf.

The 200-mph (320-kph) train will cut travel time between the North African kingdom’s two commercial hubs from nearly five hours to just over two hours and is expected to be completed by 2015.

Criticism over the project is centred on claims that Morocco can not afford a new rail network when much of Morocco still isn’t served by the railways. The website of the Stop TGV campaign lists dozens of other ways the money could have been spent, particularly on Morocco’s ailing health and education sectors, such as 25 new university teaching hospitals or 100 new engineering schools. They certainly have a case.

Critics also charge that the motivation behind the project is more about good relations with France rather than Morocco’s economic need. Others point out that the two stances are not incompatible and that the economic value of the Franco-Moroccan relationship is massive.

Omar el-Hyani, a member of the anti-high speed train collective, pointed out that the national train company’s finances are also in bad shape, especially with the expected withdrawal of business from its most important customer.

“With the withdrawal of the Office of Phosphates as its main client, the situation will get worse,” he said, explaining that phosphates will soon be carried via pipeline instead of by train. “The state will have to inject even more money in the company after work on the line is finished.”

Half of the railways’ revenues, some $180 million, currently comes from hauling phosphates, Morocco’s chief export.


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