Atay Maghrebi: The Slow Train to Tangier
Updated: Jan 6, 2019
Marrakech station is an architecturally magnificent mixture of older Moroccan motifs combined with modern palatial glass windows. It shimmers in Marrakshi tones of gold and umber even in the half-light of dawn, slowly waking up as weary passengers emerge from taxis in all directions.
The first time I had taken the train from Marrakech, it was on the earliest departure of the day, shortly after 6am. I was shocked at how dark the place had been. A few low lights were on in the building, but the railway carriages had sat in perfect darkness.
Being on a tighter budget, on my first journey northwards in 2016 I had booked a standard class ticket and hadn’t bothered to check the length of the journey. Ten hours later, having run out of cash, my back had been aching and I was massively dehydrated. I wouldn’t be making the same mistake again.
This time I’d opted for a departure during daylight, albeit still early enough to accommodate the massive journey time, and I had treated myself to an upgrade to a first class compartment. I’d also arrived armed with three litres of water, chocolate biscuits and plenty of dirhams.
The beauty of ONCF (the Moroccan national railway company) is that when you have a seat reserved, no one seems to argue about it when you ask them to move out of it. Furthermore, first class, I found, was being policed by a particularly officious guard who checked my ticket three times before showing me to my seat resembling a comfy armchair.
Perhaps the awkwardness, therefore, of ONCF is that for the duration of your journey you are thrust together with a disparate group of people who, you may or may not like the look of. Equally, they might not like the look of a gaouri like me who, after a few weeks on the road, usually starts to look a bit rough around the edges.
Fortunately, every time I have travelled on ONCF so far, the people in my compartments (if I haven’t known them already) have been an interesting group of people.
This time around I had an Arab-looking man accompanied by his Vietnamese partner, a young woman who looked so bored by life that she was practically sliding off her seat, a young Moroccan guy listening to his iPhone quietly in the corner and an older Moroccan man minding his own business.
It didn’t take long for the Iraqi man and the older Moroccan to start up a bit of a conversation, everyone having already cursorily greeted everyone else “as-salāmu ʿalaykum” or “bonjour” for my benefit.
Just like the low-lying sunshine over the dusty pink landscape as we pulled out of Marrakech, the conversation was mumbled and muted to a great extent. That is until the Iraqi man spoke to me: “Francais? Deutsch? English?”
“Irish,” I replied, “but I live in London.”
His eyebrows rose up and he smiled. He introduced himself as Iraqi, said that he was currently living in Germany and then started to interrogate me about British foreign policy and Brexit.
“Do you think Theresa May is good enough? Isn’t the Foreign Secretary there a racist? Will you have to go back to Ireland? Has the EU really been that bad for the UK?”
As I answered his questions, trying where possible to be humorous, he translated various parts of it for the benefit of the Moroccan man. He, in turn, would interject with additional questions.
When I got to the questions about whether the EU had been so bad, I mentioned the infamous fact that the areas of the UK that had been the biggest beneficiaries of EU money had, in fact, voted to leave. The Iraqi man, as before, translated this to the Moroccan man who found this hysterically funny and was giggling for a few minutes to the extent that he woke up the sleeping woman.
It is warmly reassuring that the government of the UK can provide amusement so far from home.
The railway line between Marrakech and Casablanca has had a couple of upgrades completed over the recent years, namely doubling the all the track and improving the electrical wires. All this means that the journey is smooth and on a par with any European railway.
The track left the flatlands around Marrakech, with the palmeries giving way to scrubland, and the railway began to climb gently towards Ben Guerir (where you can change for the train to Safi on the coast) and continued on, crossing the anomalous lush valley around the Oum Er-Rbia river in the otherwise dry landscape on the way to Settat.
After Settat the train rolled towards the coast and the transport hub of Casa Voyageurs; the busiest station in the country and centre of the ONCF network.
With my train terminating in Casablanca and an hour to kill, I headed to the station café.
It seems ludicrous that the furthest I have ventured into Casablanca is the railway café at the front of the station building. Every time I have even half-heartedly proposed the idea of exploring Morocco’s economic capital, it is met with the shrugging of shoulders by Moroccans who suggest that my time would be better spent in another town.
After a while, I wandered back onto the platforms and into the usual ONCF lottery about which platform the train to Tangier would be leaving from. Most people I had asked, all of whom were wearing an ONCF uniform, directed me to one of the bay platforms. Indeed, as arrived there, I could see plenty of other people waiting for the same train.
A few commuter trains came and went and it seemed to be getting nearer and nearer to the time of departure.
Suddenly a few people on the platform started to cross the tracks (a regular occurrence in Morocco although massively frowned upon by police and Le Chef de Gare). I started to get the impression that people knew something I didn’t, when a young guy came running up to me and shouted in English, “your train is here. Quick!”
It was the same young Moroccan from my compartment earlier. He’d sat the majority of that journey in total silence, occasionally heading into the neighbouring compartment where his sisters and mother were, but had recognised me.
Rest assured, running to the train in sandals, with a 15kg bag on my back was pretty tough work in the 1pm sun.
“I got on the train,” he said, “and could see you standing on the wrong platform. They always change it.”
Thankfully, the train had to wait for a further ten minutes anyway whilst the rest of the confused masses migrated from all of the various platforms, across tracks, through subways, and over fences, to board the train.
Rolling out of Casablanca, the train moved quickly along the backs of an ever-sprawling urban landscape, through what Lonely Planet calls slum areas, past vast industrial estates with smoke billowing from tall chimneys, and the lively port in the distant haze.
The presence of the coastline brought about a small reduction in the air temperature of the compartment, but even so, the air-con was struggling as the train stopped at Mohammedia, Rabat, Salé and Kenitra.
At Kenitra the tracks diverged. One direction leading inland to Meknés, Fes and Oujda; the other to Asilah and Tangier. There is a third track too. Sort of.
As the train moved onto a line that was mainly single, from the window a new railway line could be seen, that of the new Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), or high-speed train.
Modelled on its French counterpart (also called the TGV) and with the assistance of France’s SNCF railway company, 20bn dirhams is being spent on bringing the journey time between Casablanca and Tangier down to a tiny one hour and thirty minutes. It currently takes nearer to five hours along a section of track that is intermittently single and double, exacerbating any delays.
This time though I rattled along the track knowing that I still had a good many hours to go. I managed to read a little of my Agatha Christie book, They Came to Baghdad, and had a conversation with a Moroccan (who looked a bit like the musician Pitbull) who was on holiday from Belgium.
In near to perfect English, he asked me a little about the Grenfell Tower tragedy saying that “everyone in this part of Morocco knows someone who was in the Tower or has a friend who witnessed it.”
It was a sobering moment that highlighted the far-reaching effects of that human tragedy. It was something that had affected lives not just in the immediate vicinity of North Kensington, but even here, thousands of miles away, in a train compartment going through tiny stations where maybe only one person got on or off.
After rolling inland briefly through wide plains with broad skies, the train headed back to the coastal resort of Asilah. Originally I had booked to stay here, but in order to meet friends in Tangier who were flying in that night, I kept on going northwards.
The train rumbled across the wide estuary and convergence of the Oued Hachef and Oued Mharhar with its broad tidal mudflats reminiscent of north Kent back in England, then the urban sprawl of Tangier appeared, rising up quite abruptly over the rolling hillsides.
Finally, after ten hours, the majority of which I had been sat down for, the train screeched to a halt at Gare Tanger Ville (currently a building site in anticipation of the coming of the TGV).
The air in Tangier was palpably different to anywhere else I had been in Morocco. Immediately a feeling of being in southern Spain, Portugal or France hit me as I walked out of the station, taking it all in and allowing the crowds to disperse a little in front of me.
Discovering Tangier could wait until the morning though. Ten hours on a train, even in first class, had left me feeling like sleep would be the only thing I was capable of.
Crossing the road, I hailed one of the blue and green petit taxis whizzing by and asked for the Grand Socco.
Ensure that you have plenty of food, water or money for a train journey to ensure that you can sustain life after ten hours!
Offer your food (especially if it's sweet) to others in your compartment. If/when someone declines, offer it again. If/when they decline, offer it a third time. They will usually accept by this point!
Don't expect to be able to read or listen to music if you're foreign. People will want to talk to you!