Morocco-Spain Rail Tunnel

Plans are now advanced to link the continents of Africa and Europe by rail. Like the Channel Tunnel linking Great Britain and France, the Morocco-Spain Rail Tunnel will provide a high-speed international train service. According to the official accounts, work could start as early as 2008 and services could be underway by 2025.

History of the Idea

  • 1970s - Spanish studies on a possible African link begin
  • 1980 - Various options are being considered, including a bridge with seabed pillars, a pontoon bridge, a seabed tunnel and a bored tunnel.
  • 1991 - Intergovernmental body formed to plan a tunnel
  • 2004 - Go-ahead given for a detailed study.
  • 2006 - French, Spanish, Moroccan and Swiss consortium appointed.
  • 2007 - Surveys and studies concluded.
  • 2008? - Construction begins on a service tunnel.
  • ????? - Construction of the rail tunnels begin.
  • 2025? - Tunnel system opens to train traffic.
  • The Plans

    An experienced Swiss engineer, Giovanni Lombardi has been given design responsibility for the tunnel system. His company will perform the design work for the consortium. They have direct experience of the tunnel systems under the Swiss Alps, the France-Italy Mount Blanc tunnel, and the England-France Channel Tunnel.

    Two 10m wide, 40km long rail tunnels will be created running from Punta Palomas near Tarifa to Punta Malabata near Tangier. Between them will be a 7m wide service tunnel that could be used in an emergency evacuation. Ventilation shafts will be dug on the coasts of the two countries.

    Challenges

    40km is longer than appears necessary- the shortest possible route between the two countries is about 12km. But the curved route that the tunnel will take is dictated by the underwater geography of the region. There are steep canyons, shifting sandbanks and rocky crags. At the shortest crossing point, the straight is 900m deep; at the planned crossing, it's only 300m deep. (The English Channel is only 50m deep). At the shortest crossing point the tunnel would have to begin miles inland, and the gradient would be challenging even for the most powerful trains. A longer route is the only viable option.

    Surveying the sea bed has proved challenging. The Strait of Gibraltar is at the interface between the vast Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean basin. Mighty currents surge through, and have made it difficult for survey ships to maintain position. They will also complicate construction, and necessitate a very strong tunnel.

    The undersea geology is complex- the rocks are softer than the relatively firm base of the English channel, the upper surface is sandy and the deeper rocks are riddled with soft clay deposits. The region is an earthquake zone. In 1755, an earthquake caused huge damage in the area and killed 50,000 people as far away as Lisbon. In 2003, an Earthquake in Algeria killed thousands, and severed 5 of the main international telecommunications cables running from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

    Lombardi think it will cost 5 billion at today's prices, although other estimates range far above this. The shorter, more straightforward Channel Tunnel eventually cost something like four times this cost. The cost which will be met by two publicly owned companies in Spain and Morocco. Both countries have also applied for EU funding.

    The Tunnel in Use

    The trains will carry cars, coaches and lorries and could replace much of the current busy ferry service. In the first year, the tunnel could carry 9 million passengers and 8 million tonnes of freight. Travel time from Madrid to Tangier would be around four hours. A obvious boost to the economies of both nations, and the region would follow, improving trade and tourism opportunities. However, some Moroccans fear that the tunnel will accelerate emigration, and so damage their development. With all major government projects, there is a very real chance that their will be significant cost overruns.

    The African rail network is patchy. It seems that the furthest an intrepid Scottish rail traveller will be able to get in 2025 is Gabès in Tunisia- assuming the current ban on all travel from Morocco to Algeria is lifted by then. Thoughts of a rail journey from Thurso, Scotland to Cape Town, South Africa still seem far fetched.

    Sources:

    • Europe-Africa rail tunnel agreed, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3317149.stm
    • Africa and Europe Set for rail link, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/6442697.stm
    • Swiss plan tunnel under Strait of Gibraltar, http://www.swissinfo.org/eng/front/detail/Swiss_plan_tunnel_under_Strait_of_Gibraltar.html
    • Tunnel linking Europe and Africa inches closer, http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/article2198398.ece
    • Study of telecommunications infrastructure and development, http://www.novatech2006-proinvest.org/download/rapport_final_-_infrastructures_de_telecommunication.doc

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