(CNN)The first high-speed trains in Africa are flashing along the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
The French-made double-decker TGVs are being tested ahead of the launch of a flagship new line connecting Tangier with Morocco’s economic capital Casablanca in 2018.
The new trains can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour. They will cut the journey time between the two cities by more than half — to just over two hours. This is double the speed of South Africa’s Gautrain, launched in 2012, which falls short of the criteria for high-speed rail.
The $2 billion project has been in development for a decade, funded by the governments of Morocco, France, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.
King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan government expect the trains to deliver wealth and prestige for the country. But opponents claim they are an expensive folly.
Speculate to accumulate
High-speed trains fit within a wider program of infrastructure spending in Morocco, including the world’s largest solar power plant and several major ports, that is intended to stimulate a sluggish economy.
“The Government is continuing its reforms and major investments to improve the business climate and attract foreign investors,” reported the African Development Bank in its “Economic Outlook 2016” for Morocco.
The Tangiers-Casablanca route is expected to generate a sharp increase in passenger numbers that will boost tourism, support wider economic growth in the cities, and recoup the investment on it.
“We aim at six million passengers a year after three years of commercial operation, instead of three million currently,” said Mohamed Rabie Khlie, director general of national rail operator ONCF, in a recent interview with Le Monde. “This should enable us to achieve an operating margin that far exceeds that of conventional trains and will justify the development.”
The director general went on to add that growing passenger numbers had caused “saturation of the network,” making the new line a necessity.
He denied that an upgraded service would lead to high costs for passengers.
“We will run trains intended for Moroccans and thus adapted to the purchasing power of Moroccans,” said Khlie. “We do not want a train reserved for high-end customers.”