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"Metro Colonialism"? Paris Public Transport Operator Spreads Subways In North Africa

Casablanca's RATP tramway
Casablanca's RATP tramway
Philippe Jacqué

ALGIERS - Since the first subway line opened in the end of 2011, it is much appreciated.

“It is a lot easier to get to court," explains Lydia, a young lawyer. She adds that the ticket fare (around 50 cents) is reasonable for the middle class, and the service beats collective taxis or having to change buses several times. "It's also fast," she says.

The fact that it is the RATP Group – the French state-owned public transport operator – that manages the subway in Algiers does not shock her. “On the contrary, we are proud of that. Here, the RATP is highly regarded. Algerians do not have a complex regarding France. The time when we were a French colony is behind us!

In the past five years the RATP, through the intermediary of its international branch RATP Dev, has built up its network across the Maghreb.

In Algeria, the Algiers subway is also operated on a daily basis by the RATP, same with the Casablanca tramway in Morocco, which is operated with a local partner. The tramways in Algiers and Oran, which opened on May 1 are also by the RATP. In July, another tramway will open in Constantine, which is operated jointly with two state-owned Algerian companies.

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Algiers' subway - Photo: Magharebia

“We employ around 3000 people in the Maghreb and should earn in the long run an annual revenue of 100 billion euros,” says Mathieu Dunant, head of North Africa operations for the RATP. And the boom is far from over, since in Morocco for instance, cities want to limit the use of cars. In Tunisia, where there is already a large tramway system, the RATP is looking closely at the suburban trains that are being developed in Tunis.

Finally, thanks to the financial windfall of oil, the Algerian government launched an impressive program to develop tramways and subways throughout the country. Around $40 billion were invested in these infrastructure projects. Construction on six new tramway lines should begin before the end of the year. In the long run, the country should have about 20 lines.

A French history

The RATP will continue to develop itself in what has now become its own little playground. “We will be alone in the Maghreb for a while yet,” says Pierre Mongin, CEO of the RAPT. There is no competition from non-French operators like Arriva or First Group. During the call for tenders, the Algerian government decided to limit tenders to Francophone companies only.

However, the two other French public transportation giants, Transdev and Keolis, are today out of the race in the region. Heavily indebted, Transdev, who manages the Rabat tramway in Morocco, has decided to concentrate its development on Australia and northern America. Keolis, originally had high hopes in Algeria, but has given up for now, even though in 2008, it had won the bid to operate the Algiers tramway, which opened in 2011.

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Paris' metro - Photo: Kyah117

After Keolis signed its Algiers contract, there were rumors of corruption. “We did not understand the accusations,” says a source in the company. “We believe it was about internal power struggles in the Algerian government.” In the end Keolis lost the contract. “Algeria has a way of governing that is hard to understand. The RATP proved that they had the abilities to deal with this kind of contract. For us though, it is Khalass – ‘Over’ in Arabic!” explains the source.

Keolis’ loss is the RATP’s gain. The company was able to decode the Algerian arcades of power and advance its cause efficiently. “The decision process is a bit complicated here,” admits Mongin, “but once a policy is planned and made official, it is applied.”

The Maghreb is the launching pad for the RATP’s internationalization. Everything started in 2004, when the RATP invested abroad for the first time, by taking a 20% stake in M’dina Bus, a state-owned bus company in Morocco. Confronted with the unabated competition of the private bus companies, the RATP lost large amounts of money – 10 million euros. But this sacrifice opened the doors of the Moroccan market for them.

The Algerian success gave new ideas to the RATP. “For the last four years, we have been prospecting the Middle-East,” says a RATP Dev. Executive. “In Algeria, we are training executives who will later be able to develop our activities in the region.” The firm is tendering to operate a bus network in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia as well as the Dubai tramway.

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