In order to improve transport across Algeria’s vast territory, the railway system has been a priority in successive government development plans. In the period from 2010-14, €294.4m was allocated to the development and modernisation of railway infrastructure.
The government’s current five-year plan for the transport sector – a AD832.7bn (€7.7bn) programme which will run from end-2014 through 2019 – places renewed emphasis on rail transport, with plans including a significant expansion of the railway network, continued electrification of tracks and the construction of new railway stations. With an expanded and modern railway network, authorities hope rail will play a larger role in overland transport in the coming years, reducing road congestion and transport costs.
According to the state-owned National Company for Rail Transport (Société Nationale des Transports Ferroviaires, SNTF), the agency in charge of managing and operating the rail system, Algeria’s railway network spans 4573 km, 3854 km of which are currently in use. Of that total, 449 km are double-track lines and a total of 323 km are electrified.
The main northern axis of the railway – a 1200-km line – crosses the more populous coastal areas, linking Annaba, Constantine and Algiers, and extending to the borders with Tunisia in the east and Morocco in the west. A small number of lines branch off, connecting the northern axis to the Hauts Plateaux and southern wilayas (provinces). In the south-eastern part of the country, a second 388-km line extends from the port of Annaba to the country’s mining areas, including the iron mines in Ouenza and Boukhadra, and the phosphate mine of Djebel Onk.
Because of the network’s still limited connectivity and efficiency, the railway system is primarily a means of transport for passengers. According to the SNTF, passenger transport accounts for 97% of railway activity, with passenger numbers totalling 32.7m in 2014. In contrast, the transport of cargo totalled 5m tonnes in 2014, representing only a small fraction (2%) of all overland transport.
To increase the competitiveness of rail as a transportation mode, authorities are working to expand the railway network and modernise infrastructure. According to the SNTF, by 2020 the network will extend over 12,500 km, from its current 4500 km, providing efficient links to the country’s port, airport and logistics infrastructure.
As of October 2015 a total of 2300 km of railway track was under construction, according to the National Agency for Railway Project Studies and Investments (Agence Nationale d’Etudes et de Suivi de la Réalisation des Investissements Ferroviaires, ANESRIF), the public entity managing the development of the railway network.
Among the projects set for completion in the short-term is the Hauts Plateaux railway line, a 1160-km line running parallel to the northern axis and linking Tébessa in the east to Moulay Slissen in the west, with connections linking the Hauts Plateaux and northern axis. Construction began in 2011 and, after several delays, the new line is now scheduled to become operational in June 2016, according to ANESRIF. When operational, the new line will improve access to isolated areas along the Hauts Plateaux.
The network’s extensions are primarily aimed at improving connectivity to the south, in particular between the country’s productive areas and export hubs, with a view to stimulating economic activity. Two new planned lines connecting Jijel to Sétif (130 km) and Batna to Sétif (130 km) will improve links to the cement plants in Ain El Kebira (Sétif) and Ain Touta (Batna), as well as to the port of Djen Djen, in Jijel. Construction of the railway line connecting In Salah to Tamanrasset, as well as railway lines linking Touggourt to Hassi-Messaoud and Laghouat to Djelfa are also expected to begin in the short-term, with the tenders issued in late 2015.
The mining line in the south-east is also undergoing modernisation and studies for the doubling of tracks, and line extension south to El Oued Et Touggourt, are already under way. Initial feasibility studies for another line, connecting Dellys (Boumerdès) to Draâ El Mizan (Tizi-Ouzou) have already been concluded, while feasibility studies for an extension of the track connecting Thénia/Tizi-Ouzou to Azazga, 32 km east of Tizi Ouzou, started in mid-2015.
ANERSRIF’s modernisation plans also include the doubling of track lines along the totality of the northern axis, with work on 1050 km already under way. After delays related to the expropriation of land, the line connecting Algiers to Tizi Ouzou, which has been undergoing modernisation and electrification since 2012, is now also set to become operational in 2016. Once complete, the AD56.3bn (€518m) project will enable transport using high-speed rail between the capital and Tizi-Ouzou in just over an hour.
With AD127bn (€1.2bn) to be spent on network upgrades in the period 2012-15, the SNTF has also been working to upgrade its rolling stock and signalling. In mid-2015 the agency ordered 17 new railcars from French manufacturer Alstom for a total of AD21bn (€193.2m). The new electric-diesel units will be used for inter-city services linking Algiers with Oran, Annaba, Constantine and Bechar. The SNTF has also commissioned a total of 30 diesel locomotives from various US manufacturers, 14 of which will be dedicated to passenger transport, with the remaining 16 to handle freight transport. Other acquisitions include 30 passenger cars and 20 electric railcars. A total of 202 passenger cars are also being refurbished by a consortium of Faiveley Transport and Compin, who won the €75m contract.
The SNTF itself is set to undergo considerable reorganisation in the medium-term. The Minister of Transport, Boudjema Talai, announced in August 2015 the agency would become a joint stock company starting in 2019, a move expected to streamline the organisation’s operations and lead to greater efficiency.
As expansion and modernisation efforts advance, the SNTF is establishing partnerships with key international players to ensure the agency has the required know-how to efficiently manage and operate the expanded network. In September 2015 the SNTF and France’s SNCF signed a memorandum of understanding, paving the way for collaboration in the areas of training, railway engineering, transportation of passengers, freight transport and logistics.
The same year the SNTF entered into another key partnership with Austrian telecoms company Kapsch CarrierCom. The two companies signed an agreement establishing a joint-venture – Rail-Telecom – to supervise and maintain railway telecommunications networks, and facilitate knowledge transfer, including training of local staff.
Authorities hope the recent capital investment in rail infrastructure will bring significant performance improvements in rail transport and travel. SNTF’s general director, Yacine Bendjaballah, told OBG, “We expect to see an increase in the volume of freight transported, from the current 5m tonnes to 18m by 2019, and the number of passengers to increase from 30m to 87m in the same period.”
The establishment of an efficient and reliable railway system – one that effectively links productive areas with ports and logistics platforms – could signal substantial improvements to the country’s logistics performance and greatly reduced transport costs. “Developing the train network has both a positive social and economic impact,” Bendjaballah told OBG. “Notably, shipping costs are greatly reduced as the train is roughly 25 times cheaper than road transport given the greater possibilities for bulk shipping. Similarly, the train is more ecological than other alternatives and improves public safety by removing large trucks off of Algeria’s roads,” he added. Given its strategic importance within the transport sector, the development of rail transport is likely to remain at the top of sector priorities for years to come.
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