Railroads Of North Africa

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by Don Strack

(Originally done as a research paper entitled "Historical Geography Of Rail Transportation In Magreb Africa" for Geography 566-1, University of Utah, Professor James W. King, June 1984. The paper was completed as my Senior Project, and I received an 'A'.)

The three nations that make up the region of Northwest Africa, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, are collectively called the "Maghreb". The actual name is a contraction of the term "Djezira el Maghreb" which is Arab for "Western Isle", which describes the various ranges of the Atlas Mountains that rise like islands out of the flatlands of the Saharan Desert. In the early years of French occupation of the region the French could see that in order for them to consolidate their interests, and to aid in the economic development of the region, there was a need for a link that would tie the entire region together. In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries that link was generally accepted as meaning the building of a railroad. In many cases the rail lines that were built merely connected two or more major cities with each other for administrative and political reasons; the lines didn't serve any real economic purpose. The British and the Germans both also used railroads to show a political presence in their African colonies; albeit fifteen to twenty years later, following the French example. Those early French built lines in the Maghreb are today serving as trunk lines for the construction of additional lines into the interiors of the three countries to help in the economic growth of these now independent nations.


After forty four years of French and Spanish rule, the Kingdom of Morocco regained its independence on March 3, 1956. The Kingdom had been independent under a succession of Arab dynasties since Islamic invaders had conquered the Berber natives late in the Seventeenth Century. The nation lost its independence to the French and Spanish in 1912 after becoming involved in the empire building efforts of the European nations. The French assumed control of most of the country as a Protectorate; the Spanish taking only isolated areas along both coasts.

Also in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Morocco saw its first railroad service. In about 1912 the French Army began building a system of 600mm gauge military railroads to connect the major regions of the nation together. In 1915 the principle portions of the system were completed and put into service. The 580 mile main route, more or less along the present route of today, was between Oujda on the Algerian border and Marrakech in the west central desert, by way of Fes, Rabat, and Casablanca. A maximum speed of fifteen miles per hour made for a rather tedious journey.

The nation's first standard gauge lines were first constructed in 1923. They were for the most part conversions and reconstructions of the previously built military routes. The standard gauge lines connected the historical capital city of Fes with the modern capital of Rabat; and in the west, the newly developed phosphate mining region near Kfouribga with the port of Casablanca. In 1925 Rabat was connected with Casablanca by standard gauge along the coast. Tangier was connected with the Fes Rabat line in 1927 by a joint French Spanish private corporation and Marrakech was connected to the Kjouribga Casablanca line in 1928. In 1931 a standard gauge line was completed by the Trans-Saharan Railway, by its parent company, the Meditterrean Niger Railway Company, between the coal mining region near Bou Arfa in the east and the Algerian rail system at Oujda. The Algerian Western Railway had completed its standard gauge route between the Algerian settlement of Gran and the Moroccan frontier town of Oujda in 1922.

The year 1934 saw the completion of the connector line between Fes and Oujda. This new line allowed a traveler a through route, entirely of standard gauge, from Marrakech in the west, across Morocco and Algeria, to the Tunisian capital city of Tunis in northern Tunisia 1,500 miles to the east. In 1936 another Moroccan standard gauge line was completed in the west between more phosphate mines at Ben Guerir and the new port city of Safi, still further to the west. The completion of these lines during the 1930's helped Morocco through the industrial development that continued into the 1970's.

Electrification of the standard gauge railroad system in Morocco had been planned from the start and in 1927 the first section of electrified line was placed in operation in the Casablanca area. At present all main routes from Marrakech and Tangiers to Fes have been electrified with 3000 vdc generated from water power in the Atlas Mountains. Of the present total of 1,091 miles of route, 440 miles are electrified.

In 1963 the Kingdom of Morocco nationalized its railroad system under the name of the Moroccan Railways (Office National des Chemins de Fer du Maroc ONCFM). They also assumed operation of the two private, independent companies, the former joint French and Spanish Tangier and Fes Railway (Cie. Franco Espanole des Chemins de Per de Targier a Fez) and the Mediterranean Niger Railway (Chemins de Fer de la Mediterranee au Niger), sometimes called the Moroccan Eastern Railway. While operation of the entire system is by the ONCFM, the accounting for each of the three companies is still kept separate.

In the early 1970's it became apparent that the current rail system would be inadequate for any future expansion of both the freight and passenger business. A series of modernization plans have been implemented to allow the ONCFM to handle the increasing amounts of traffic. These plans include various projects that are a combination of additional electrification, double tracking, and new construction of other routes.

In 1980 the ONCFM was being operated with sixty-one electric and eighty-one diesel locomotives, along with 8,700 freight and 300 passenger cars. Just over four million passengers were carried and twenty-two million tons of freight were handled. Approximately sixty percent of the freight traffic consists of phosphate for export through the ports of Safi and Casablanca from the mines at Youssoufia and Khouribga. In 1980, the ONCFM was operated at a loss with expenses being 104 percent of receipts.


Algeria gained its independence from France in 1962 after a brutal war of national liberation. The country had been an integral part of metropolitan France since the French had occupied it in 1830, by forcing out the Ottoman Turks, who themselves had wrested the region from the great medieval Berber empires in the Sixteenth Century. In its early history, Algeria's coastal areas had been occupied by a succession of Catharginian, Roman, and Arab conquerors and colonizers.

Algeria's first railway was completed in July 1862, as a thirty mile standard gauge line running southwest from Algiers.

Soon after its completion the line's original organizers failed and the line was taken over by the French Paris-Lyon-Mediterranee Company. In 1871 the PLM Company completed a 360 mile line to connect Algiers with Oran. Another private company, the Algerian Eastern Railway, built a line between Algiers and Constantine in 1870. In 1904 this line was taken over by the state and operated by the PLM Company.

A narrow gauge 1055mm gauge (same as the British forty-two inch gauge) line was constructed in 1910 to connect the coastal area with the desert settlement of Colomb-Bechar, and its coal deposits, to the south. The standard gauge line between Oran and the Moroccan border, known as the Algerian Western Railway, was completed in 1922. Other narrow gauge meter gauge lines were built to serve the predominately agricultural areas of the high plateaus which lie between the coast and the Sahara Desert.

In 1940 construction was begun on the Algerian segment of the Trans Saharan Railway, or to use its actual name, the Mediterranean-Niger Railway. The line made a connection with the Moroccan segment, completed in 1931, at Bou Arfa and continued into Algeria to connect with the 1055mm narrow gauge line at Colomb-Bechar. Surveying and grading of the line south of Colomb-Bechar was halted in 1942 due to World War Two, and did not resume after the war was over.

In 1933, a joint railway administration (the Chemins de Fer Algeriens) unifying all of the Algerian railway lines was set up with the French state railway as a major partner. Algeria's railways were nationalized, becoming separate from the French system, in 1939; adopting the name Societe Nationale Chemins de Fer Algeriens SNCFA. In 1976 the name was changed to Societe Nationale des Transports Ferroviaires SNTF. Also in 1976 the connection for interchange with Morocco's railway system at Oujda was broken due to political differences between the governments over the destiny of former Spanish Western Sahara.

Of Algeria's 2,566 miles of railroad line, approximately 1,500 miles are standard gauge; the remaining milage is narrow gauge, either of meter gauge (1000mm) or 42" gauge (1055mm). Just under 250 miles of the standard gauge have been electrified. These lines are used to transport the raw materials for steel production from the mining areas near Tebessa, along the eastern border with Tunisia, to the El Hadjar steel mills near the coastal city of Annaba. Prior to the construction of these steel mills in 1968 most of the iron ore from these mines had been exported about 3.5 million tonnes per year and Algerian industry was almost entirely dependent on imports of foreign steel products. The steel mills at El Hadjar mills are being expanded, along with the nation's railroads to handle the increased traffic.

The standard gauge line between El Gurrah, south of Constantine, and Touggourt much further to the south, has become the link for development of Algeria's interior. The realized importance of this route falls in line with forecasts of the importance of railroads in the further development of Algeria as an industrial nation. The government has found that a railroad system's ability to move heavy bulk materials has proven invaluable to the development of the nation's oil, steel, and phosphate industries, both for domestic use and for export.


Recorded history for Tunisia began with the arrival of the Phoenician traders in the Twelfth Century B. C. and their establishment of Carthage as a great trading center for the western Mediterranean in 814 B.C. The Romans conquered the Carthaginians in 146 B.C. after the Punic Wars and ruled North Africa with varying degrees of success for the next 700 years. Roman Carthage fell in 693 A.D. when the Arabs, and the wave of Islam, swept over all of North Africa. The region again changed hands when the Ottoman Turks took Tunis from the Arabs in 1510. The nation came under a succession of Turkish rulers for the next 300 years gradually becoming more and more automous and independent. Tunisia became involved as an ally with Great Britain and France in the Crimean War of 1854. Due to this alliance, and its subsequent debt, French influence and pressure slowly increased to the point that a French-puppet Turkish ruler was placed in power in 1877. In 1881 Tunisia became a French Protectorate and remained under French colonial rule until it was given its independence on March 20, 1956.

Tunisia's first railroads were built in 1874 during the last years of Turkish rule. They were standard gauge lines to serve the capital city of Tunis. Standard gauge was adopted for the route westward into Algeria. This line was begun in 1876 and completed to the Algerian border in 1877. Meter gauge was adopted for all lines south of Tunis. The first of these meter gauge lines to be completed was between the phosphate mines in the west near Gafsa and the port city of Sfax by the Gafsa Phosphate and Railroad Company (the Compagnie des Phospahtes et du Chemins de Fer de Qafsah) in 1897. Also in 1897 Tunis was connected along the coast with the coastal city of Sousse; and in 1912 this line was extended further south to the phosphate port city of Sfax. Other meter gauge lines were built in later years to serve the lead, phosphate, and iron ore mining regions near the Algerian border near Haidra.

Under the French Protectorate the railroad system was operated by a private organization, the Rural Corporation of Tunisian Railroads (Compagnie Fermier des Chemins de Fer Tunisiens), which held the railways on a concession charter from the state. Nationalization in 1965 brought all lines, except the Sfax Gafar phosphate line, under a newly created state organization, the Tunisian National Railroad Company (Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Tunisiens SNCFT). The Sfax Gafar phosphate line came under state control in 1967 with the 1966 expiration of the seventy year charter.

Of the SNCFT's 1,243 miles of railroad, about 949 miles have been built to meter gauge. These lines spread throughout most of the central portions of the country and have helped in the further development of the nation's economy. The standard gauge portion of the system about 294 miles is all located within the northern most section of the country; the region that is north of the actual line west towards Algeria. Standard gauge has been proposed for a new line linking Sfax with Tripoli in Libya providing for more international interchange. Provisions have been made for the meter-gauge line between Sfax and Tunis to be converted to standard gauge at a later date.

The phosphate deposits of the western central region of the country have proven to be advantageous for both the nation's economy and the railroad system's freight traffic patterns. While actual figures have been unavailable, most of the improvements being done on, and planned for, the nation's railroad system have been for the purpose of increasing the traffic capacity of the phosphate hauling lines. The other major improvements have been in the vicinity of the capital city of Tunis to increase the commuter transportation capabilities of the rail lines around that area.


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