BY ROGER WILLIAMS
Major investment is transforming train travel in Morocco. Roger Williams explores the culture around rail travel and sees how old and new are sitting comfortably alongside each other.
For many people, rail journeys in Morocco are immortalised in the Crosby Stills & Nash song Marrakesh Express and as we arrive by air, Marrakech’s historic ochre-coloured architecture glows in the setting sun against a cloudless sky, and the words of the song seem immediately so appropriate: “Through the sunset in your eyes, trying to make the train, through clear Moroccan skies”.
We’re entering the country via the magnificent King Mohammed VI terminal, to begin a two-day journey around Morocco with host Toufiq Rahmani, director of Restaurail, which provides catering onboard trains, and in station cafes.
Restaurail’s client, ONCF, currently carries 30 million passengers a year across 2500km of railway with 100 stations from Marrakech to Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, Fez and Ougda.
New 320km/h high-speed trains are planned for 2018, operating between Tangier (main port) and Casablanca (financial centre – population 5 million) and ONCF hopes this will bring 6 million extra passengers a year but, for now, slower intercity trains run across the country day and night.
In many cities, new modern stations stand proudly like palaces, with arched entrances welcoming all travellers, and in Marrakech station we discovered both McDonald’s and Segafredo cafes. Clearly western brands are welcome; although Restaurail’s traditional café with its sunny terrace seems to attract customers first.
Bound for Casablancad
The train to Casablanca runs via Ben Guerir, where Rahmani, and fellow director Mouhcine Saidi, show us their smart new café, due to open when the King inaugurates the station. Seemingly, Morocco’s modern monarch is key to the momentum that is driving new infrastructure and economic growth.
Across the road is the antithesis of this new station, a massive traditional souk peddling livestock, crops, clothes, tagines and traditional teapots. But whilst the old and new somehow seem to sit well together in Morocco, I’m not sure what the locals made of us wandering through their souk as this is definitely not a tourist area (yet)!
The restful sleeper train, or Voyages de Nuit, is particularly good and branded a ‘Train Hotel’, with couchettes, and single or double cabins. Restaurail’s attendants ensure everyone’s comfort, and provide welcome kits (toiletries, handkerchiefs, snacks, mineral water) and a breakfast tray before arrival.
Journeying onwards through flat, green and well-irrigated countryside, we sit in an air-conditioned, ageing but comfortable First Class compartment. The refreshment trolley arrives promptly offering sandwiches, hot and cold drinks (although of course no alcohol), and sweet and savoury snacks. Given the local penchant for dark espresso, it was surprising to see Nescafe instant coffee served in pre-packed cups, however the product was welcomed by the customers we saw.
Arriving in Casablanca Voyageurs, we crossed the city to visit the impressive split-level Casa Port station that is a real showcase for ONCF. Starbucks, McDonalds, Segafredo and KFC are all here but, as vast as Casa Port station is, it’s dwarfed by the huge Hussein II Mosque, majestically perched on the Casablanca coast. With a world record 200m high minaret tower, lavish filigree carving and a 25,000 capacity it’s a must see in Casablanca.
We continue north to Mohammedia (City of Flowers), where there is yet another new station and Restaurail café to check out before we head back to Marrakech. This lengthier journey demonstrated to me how a high-speed service with a more extensive catering offer would be the logical next step in the railway’s development. ONCF’s current tender for these services is under review so it will be interesting to see the response, but with the new trains only going between Tangier and Casablanca, a faster “Marrakech Express” is still years away.
This was a trip which gave a real taste of how Morocco is evolving, from the traditional snake charmers and carpet sellers of the Medina in Marrakech to the modern international hotels, shops and restaurants supporting the tourist trade.
I left, however, with a sense of unfinished business – acknowledging that the significant new railway infrastructure investment and the high-speed tender is certainly going to change the food travel market. For that reason, if no other, I know I’ll be back very soon to explore more of this fascinating country.