Aida Alami is a freelance journalist who contributes to The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and other publications.
Morocco is preparing to launch a high-speed train, reputed to be the first in Africa. But in the wake of a deadly train derailment near the capital city, Rabat, residents say safe, rather than fast train service, should be the priority.
RABAT, Morocco—Despite the Moroccan government’s eager solicitation of press coverage of its TGV, the high-speed train scheduled to be launched this year after more than seven years in the works, it is not so eager for coverage of another train story: On Tuesday, journalists were reportedly barred from entering the courtroom in the city of Salé, where the conductor of the train in a recent, deadly accident, was on trial.
Earlier this month, on the morning of October 16, Moroccan commuters between the cities of Kenitra and Rabat posted on social media that they felt unusual vibrations on the train tracks.
Employees of the state-run train company, the Office National des Chemins de Fer, or ONCF, ignored the complaints, according to several accounts on Facebook. That same morning, shortly after some of the concerns were raised, a train derailed near Bouknadel, a small coastal town, just north of Rabat, killing seven and injuring dozens.
The accident was the deadliest since 1993, when two commuter trains collided on the outskirts of Rabat, killing 14 and wounding more than 100.
As reports about this recent accident went public and disturbing photos were shared online, people were shocked and saddened but not really surprised. Many felt that grim precursors had indicated for a long time that a train tragedy would occur.
After Moroccans buried their dead and showed solidarity with the wounded, giving their blood and helping with the rescue efforts, the debate that followed the horror wasn’t only about the train company’s responsibility: People are demanding some sort of accountability and they’re not getting answers.
The TGV is reputed to be the first high-speed train in Africa and the government has been proudly showing off the prototype to foreign journalists for several years. But this recent accident has put Moroccan trains in the headlines again, and the TGV at the center of debate.
Many Moroccans are fed up with their leaders who appear to run the economy in a way that is counter to citizens’ best interests and that defies economic logic. “This shows that there are serious problems of maintenance and management. There is at least one incident a month,” said Omar El Hyani, an elected city official in Rabat and a longtime critic of the ONCF’s lack of transparency and dysfunctions. El Hyani was also part of the Stop TGV! collective, an initiative that lobbied against the project but did not succeed.
Supporters say that the TGV will help boost the country’s economy by connecting industrial hubs, bringing them closer together. The Moroccan TGV will link Casablanca, the country’s economic center, with Rabat, the capital and Tangier in the north, a city with major foreign factories and one of the biggest ports in the world. But it will run at high speeds only between Kenitra, a city a few miles north of Rabat, and Tangier. Many feel that other transit priorities are being ignored. For instance, deadly train accidents aren’t that common but incidents happen all the time.
Fires, small accidents, and other kinds of incidents are routine. Between 60 and 80 percent of trains were late, according to a recent article in a Moroccan news site that cited a leaked document. Antiquated trains and maintenance on crumbling tracks were to blame.
Last week, the train company reported major delays with no explanations or a forecast when the normal schedule would return. Protests have erupted on the tracks between Rabat and Casablanca, the country’s economic capital, in a bid for answers.
While there are other complaints about leaders’ insensitivity to the problems of ordinary Moroccans, the trains have become one of the greatest symbols of aloof leadership. Morocco has a long track record of favoring massive investments that contribute to the modern image of the country while neglecting the basic needs of people when it comes to improving essential sectors like education and healthcare.
Many are questioning the country’s spending priorities and there is growing discontent at what is perceived to be the state’s failure to protect its citizens. The ONCF, which is managed by the ministry of transport, has built fancy malls in many of its stations across the country, with international shops, but has yet to invest in making its lines safer or the system entirely more reliable.
The investigation into the Bouknadel accident is targeting the conductor, suggesting very little will be done to improve the current disastrous conditions of the train system. Recent local reports have indicated that the ONCF is losing a lot of money and yet the same person, Mohamed Rabie Khlie, has managed it for almost two decades.
Huge investments were also poured into new train stations currently under construction in Rabat. “They are over-investing in building malls and in the TGV and under-investing in the train tracks and in improving the current system,” El Hyani added.
While the TGV will be bright, shiny, and new, it will also be singular in those qualities as, other than the TGV, El Hyani notes about the ONCF, “They haven’t bought a new train since 2007.”