Work begins on Moroccan high-speed rail link

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Moroccan host last week launched work on Africa's fastest rail line, highlighting France's role in a region being reshaped by the Arab Spring.

Sarkozy was met at Tangier airport by King Mohammed VI and then went directly to the station for the joint launch of the 350-kilometre-long project linking the northern port city with Casablanca to the south via the capital Rabat.

Sarkozy, who was accompanied by a clutch of ministers and other officials, later held talks with the king against the backdrop of major political change brought about by the Arab Spring uprisings which have overthrown long-time leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Morocco "is modernising under the leadership of the king," Sarkozy said of recent political reforms.

"France had the opportunity to say several times how much it values the vision (for the future) expressed by the king, the [country's] recent reforms and its continued progress towards democracy," he added.

The Tangier-Casablanca railway is based on France's world-renowned high-speed TGV trains. It will begin service in 2015 and cut the journey time from nearly six hours to just over two hours.

The plan is to eventually extend it to Marrakesh and Agadir, Moroccan officials have said.

Rabat says it expects the first leg of the line to cost €3 billion (NZ$5.3bn), for which France has extended a €920 million loan.

The balance is being funded largely by Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

In December, the French group Alstom inked a €400m deal to provide Morocco with 14 high speed trains, a contract seen as a boost for the company after it was snubbed by Eurostar, which had elected to buy trains from Germany's Siemens.

France is its former colony Morocco's top trading partner, absorbing 25 per cent of exports.

Africa boasts one other high-speed link - South Africa's US$3.8-billion Gautrain which has run at much more modest speeds of 160 kilometres an hour between Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria since early August.

- AFP

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