At the moment it is impossible to take a train from Marrakech in Morocco to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia – from one end of the Arab world to the other. But in the long-term it may become more than a pipe dream as a wave of heavy investment in rail travel sweeps the region.
Trains have a long history in the Middle East and North Africa; Egypt is listed as the third country in the world and the first in the Middle East to use trains to transport passengers. Some even argue that, since at the time trains were introduced in India it was part of the British Empire, Egypt should be ranked second.
The current cash injection is the light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. The decision by governments to invest in highways and airports after the Second World War led to a decline of rail infrastructure, says David Briginshaw, editor-in-chief of International Rail Journal.
The picture today is very different, with a tremendous realization that rail is a highly sustainable mode of transport, and that in turn is generating a huge resurgence in railroad spending around the world.
Back to our journey from Marrakech to Riyadh. How much of it is possible to cover today?
In Morocco, the National Train Company (ONCF) in November 2007 announced plans to construct a high-speed train network based on the French high-speed train TGV, which would stretch 932 miles, connecting all major cities and be completed by 2030. Some 133 million passengers are expected to use the network annually once completed.
As an example of the benefits of the new trains ONCF estimates travel time between the key cities of Marrakech and Casablanca would be cut from three hours and 15 minutes to one hour and 20 minutes.
From Morocco there are existing rail lines to both Tunisia and Algeria, but due to the political situation the border with Algeria remains closed. While Libya has had plans to build a railway line along the coast, there are as yet no concrete plans, as Libya lacks the cash needed for such large-scale infrastructure projects.
Until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the Egyptian railway was also heavily used to transport goods in addition to its original purpose of carrying passengers. While the age of the Egyptian network is a source of pride, in 2007 the lines were anything but that.
In two separate accidents, some 400 people lost their lives while traveling on the railways. Boulos N. Salama, professor of railways at Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering, was charged with leading the investigation into the accidents. The findings he presented led the government to allocate $14 billion to upgrade the national rail network.
The money is to be spent on constructing lines to new and fast-growing cities outside the Nile Delta. Cairo also intends to pump money into upgrading old mechanical signaling systems that are still being used on 85 percent of the lines.
The next bridge to cross en route to Riyadh is the Sinai Peninsula connecting Egypt to Israel, according to Briginshaw. There are no plans to connect the two rail networks in the foreseeable future.
There is a budget to continue the existing line from Dimona to Eilat at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba, says Yaron Ravid of Israel Railway. That would bring the railroad to the border with Egypt. The extension of the line would connect tourist-friendly Eilat with Ashdod, one of Israel two main port cities.
However, at the moment, the main project in Israel is the high-speed line that will connect the political powerhouse of Jerusalem with the business capital, Tel Aviv. The line was slated to be completed in 2008, but is facing a five-year delay.
As for the recent surge of construction, Ravid says the interest in railway construction can be explained by the fact that the government now understands that a country’s transport problems cannot be solved just by building more roads.
From a technical standpoint there is no problem in connecting the Israeli network to the Jordanian one, says Ravid. There is a proposal – although no budget has been allocated – to build a line from the port city of Haifa to Jordan, crossing at Sheikh Hussein Bridge, thus connecting the industrial zone located on the Jordanian side with an additional shipping point.
The only Jordanian heavy freight line runs to Aqaba in the south of the country, which also has a rudimentary link to Syria. Syria is then linked to Turkey, where the government is investing $1.3 billion in a connection between Ankara and Sivas in the east of the country, and onwards to Iraq.
The next gap in our route is from Iraq via Kuwait down to Saudi Arabia and along the Gulf. There is a plan that has been around for many years to build a line through the Gulf region from Basra in Iraq onto Kuwait and all the way south to the United Arab Emirates.
The last stage of the journey is the so-called Saudi Landbridge, a project that includes a 590-mile line between the capital Riyadh and the Red Sea port Jedda, as well as a 71-mile link between the industrial city Jubail and Dammam, the oil hub on the Gulf coast. The entire project is estimated at $5b.
From Jedda the new rail link aims to transport an estimated 10 million ‘Umra and Hajj pilgrims every year to the holy cities Mecca and Medina. It includes the construction of approximately 310 miles of high-speed electric railway lines between the three cities. The new lines will allow the trains to travel at 180 miles per hour, allowing a Jedda–Mecca journey time of half an hour, and Jedda–Medina in two hours.
For decades a Eurail pass, has allowed travel on 21 national railway networks in Europe, with trains passing seamlessly across international frontiers. Some rail developers see a similar plan for the Middle East.
However, at the moment, it will be some time before visitors to the Middle East will be able to travel across the region in the same way, and the romance of a journey from Marrakech to Riyadh remains in the realm of paperwork.