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Thursday 27 September 2007Features

Author: Murray Hughes

01 Jun 2007

Desert riches fuel network revival


Greater political stability and a measure of prosperity are returning to Algeria, with revenues from oil and gas helping to pay for an ambitious programme to rebuild and expand the rail network. Murray Hughes reports

ELECTRIFICATION, double-tracking and new line construction are set to transform Algeria's run-down railway into an effective and efficient tool for the economy. Long-forgotten projects have been revived and new ones drawn up as a modernisation and renewal programme gathers pace. Some schemes are already in progress and others are at the tender stage.

Behind the unprecedented drive to re-equip Algeria's rail network lies a more stable political situation - although the threat of volatility remains. The government is anxious to promote economic development, and there is high-level recognition of the need to develop modern transport infrastructure to ensure that progress is sustained. Matched with the influx of revenues from the sale of oil and gas from the country's extensive reserves in the Sahara, this political support has dramatically changed the outlook for the national railway - which for many years struggled to keep going as civil war, sabotage and neglect exacted a heavy toll.

Crucially, the government has made 360bn dinars - or about US$5bn - available to rebuild and modernise the 4 200 route-km network. The money is also paying for a remarkable programme of new line construction which will open up the regions south of the Atlas mountains. Several new cities are planned, including a centre to service the oil and gas industry at Hassi Messaoud.

Significantly, the projects are being developed and organised by SNTF, the national rail operator, in 'a very intelligent way', according to Jean-Pierre Loubinoux, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of SNCF International, which is involved in several major schemes. Loubinoux also highlights the government's willingness to support revival of the rail network - although motorways and new roads are also being built.

Suburban electrification

Among the projects that is most advanced is electrification at 25 kV 50 Hz of the Alger suburban network. Originally due for completion by the end of 2007, this work is now expected to be finished by August 2008. SNCF International has been closely involved in the scheme as part of an Alstom-led consortium which won a k88m contract in 2004. Local partners include SNTF construction subsidiary Infrafer and Baticim, which is responsible for supply of catenary masts and other steelwork.

The project entails wiring around 180 route-km (300 track-km), with associated resignalling and upgrading of the routes from Alger main station to Thénia, Oued Smar to Gué de Constantine and El Harrach to Blida and El Affroun. Line speeds are being raised to 120 km/h, and SNTF expects that traffic will treble to around 60 million passengers a year by 2010. The first of 64 EMUs is expected to arrive in mid-2008 (p207).

As the suburban services form a discrete operational unit, the government has floated the idea that they should be operated by a private-sector concessionaire this remains under discussion for the moment.

SNCF International has also advised on a programme to refurbish SNTF's fleet of 350 loco-hauled suburban and long-distance passenger coaches. These are mainly stainless steel vehicles built in France in the 1970s and 1980s which include a number of couchette cars. Full-size mock-ups of the rebuilt interiors were prepared and presented to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the end of 2005. This enabled decisions to be taken on the final form of the refurbishment, and a production line has been set up at the Sidi Bel Abbes workshops to process the coaches.

Main line electrification

Given the ready availability of oil from the Sahara, it is perhaps surprising that SNTF has decided to electrify on a large scale. Superior performance of electric traction on steeply graded routes is the principal reason, and this is allied to the need to achieve a step-change in capacity for both passenger and freight traffic.

Although SNTF's mineral line from Tebessa to Annaba is wired at 3 kV DC, SNTF has chosen to electrify its key east-west corridor at 25 kV 50 Hz. The corridor stretches from Maghnia, close to the Moroccan border, to Oran, continuing through Relizane and Chlef to Alger. East of the capital the electrified artery will serve Bouira, Bordj Bou Arreridj, Sétif and Constantine before reaching Annaba. Alstom was among the prequalifed contractors when tenders were submitted last November. Other bidders included Russian Railways and consortia led by Balfour Beatty Rail, Siemens and Elecnor.

Three important routes branching off from the main corridor are also to be electrified. These are the link from Thenia to Tizi Ouzou - which is to be upgraded - and an extension currently under construction from Tizi Ouzou to Oued Aissi the line, also to be upgraded, along the Soumman river valley from Beni Mansour to the port of Bejaia and the short but sinuous stretch from Ramdane Djamel to the port of Skikda.

Much of the east-west corridor is single track, but SNTF envisages adding a second track along the whole route. At the western end a completely new alignment is envisaged from Maghnia to Oued Tlelat, where the important link to Oran diverges. A second track will be laid from Oued Tlelat as far as Oued Sly, from where double track already exists through Chlef and Oued Fodda to El Attaf. Doubling will resume there and continue through El Khemis to El Affroun, where the line meets the Alger suburban network.

East of Alger, double tracking work will recommence at the outer limit for suburban services at Thenia and continue all the way to El Gourzi, junction for the line south to Touggourt. A second track already exists between El Gourzi and Ramdane Djamel, and over the final 95 km to Annaba OHL of Spain, partnered with Infrafer, is already at work on laying the second track under a k248·3m contract awarded in early 2006.

Mineral line concession

The electrified 3 kV route from Annaba to Tebessa carries large tonnages of iron ore from mines at Ouenza, Boukhadra and El Kouif, although phosphates from Djebel Onk are also moved down the line for export.

For many years traction consisted of a fleet of 32 Class 6CE locomotives built by LEW and Skoda in Eastern Europe, but in 1996 the first of a fleet of 14 Co-Co locos ordered from Belgian company ACEC Transport arrived to replace them. Today only 17 of the older locos remain in service.

Assembled by Alsthom Transporte in Spain, the 2 400 kW Class 6FE locos had to cope with temperatures of 50°C and an atmosphere laden with dust and sand on grades as steep as 2·5%. Provision was made for the locos to be modified to accept 25 kV 50 Hz - a far-sighted move now that the AC system has been chosen for the rest of the SNTF network.

The mineral line operates largely as a separate entity, and last year Booz Allen, working with SNCF International, was awarded a contract to investigate the possibility of running the 231 km route as a private-sector concession. The two consultants have assessed the line's operations, infrastructure and logistics and have put forward proposals for a business model.

An upgrading and modernisation project is also planned, and the scheme is supported by Agence Française de Développement, but the ultimate outcome may well depend on decisions taken by the government and Arcelor-Mittal, which now owns the steelworks at Annaba.

High Plateau Line

Plans have existed since the early 1980s for a railway running east-west across the country to the south of the Atlas chain. Intended partly to relieve the congested corridor between Annaba, Constantine, Alger and Oran, the line is also viewed as an essential part of plans to develop Algeria's inland region. Known as the High Plateau Line, it is now firmly back on the agenda.

Indeed, the first part of the central section from Aïn Touta to Barika and M'Sila has been completed, and work is now in progress on the link from M'Sila to Bordj Bou Arreridj. Further east, construction is in hand between Tebessa and Aïn M'Lila, offering an alternative route for phosphate traffic from Djebel Onk.

For some time SNTF harboured ambitions to build parts of the High Plateau Line as high speed routes, and SNCF International partnered with Alstom and Astaldi of Italy was one of several groups to put in a tender in June 2006. However, the price of constructing high speed lines obliged SNTF to review the concept, as a result of which it decided to abandon the idea. Tenders have now been reissued, and this time SNTF is opting for a conventional 160 km/h alignment. SNCF International continues to be involved, but it is now bidding as part of a different consortium with Thales and civil engineering company Razel.

West of M'Sila the High Plateau Line will run to Aïn Ouessera, where it intersects the 1 055 mm gauge line from Blida to Djelfa. The route then continues west to Mahdia, where it meets another 1 055 mm gauge line from Relizane. When this section of the High Plateau Line is built, it will replace the narrow gauge route between Mahdia and Tiaret. A new 1 435 mm gauge line between Tiaret and Relizane is included in SNTF's medium-term construction programme.

The final section of the High Plateau Line runs southwest from Tiaret to Saïda, where it crosses SNTF's third narrow gauge line linking Mohammadia and Béchar, continuing to a junction at Moulay Slissen with the standard gauge line from Tabia to Redjem Demouche.

Another medium-term project is a new line from Redjem Demouche south to Mecheria, where it will link into the 360 km standard gauge railway already being built to replace the narrow gauge line to Béchar (RG 6.04 p367). The Béchar - Mecheria project is in the hands of a consortium embracing several Algerian companies, TSO of France and SNCF International, which is co-ordinating the works, ensuring the continued safe operation of narrow gauge services and advising on the maintenance of rolling stock and depot design. The new line is due to open in 2008.

SNCF International is involved in several other contracts that include signalling of the Aïn Touta - M'Sila line with Thales and resignalling of sections of the main east-west corridor from Oued Sly to El Khemis, Bordj Bou Arreridj to El Gourzi, and Ramdane Djamel to Annaba. Another contract covers staff training and safety.

  • CAPTION: Traction for long-distance passenger services is mainly in the hands of EMD locomotives. A batch of 30 new locos is due for delivery from Canada shortly
  • CAPTION: Push-pull suburban services in Alger will shortly be replaced by EMUs now under construction in Switzerland

Rolling stock renewal gathers pace

IN THE NEAR future SNTF will need a large number of electric locomotives to haul freight and passenger services on its east-west corridor. Harsh conditions prevail, with steep grades, sharp curves and high temperatures that will test the mettle of any traction.

In the meantime Spanish rolling stock builder CAF is working on a contract to supply 17 three-car diesel multiple-units to SNTF for medium-distance services. Based on the Series 598 tilting trains that the company has built for Renfe Operadora, the Algerian trains will not be fitted with tilt. Bodies will be formed of aluminium extrusions, and each 75·6 m long train will offer 199 seats in a single class.

Two underfloor diesel engines in each end car will give a nominal rating of 1 352 kW. A hydraulic drive will permit a maximum speed of 160 km/h, and up to three sets will be able to operate in multiple. Two auxiliary power packs in the centre trailer will supply energy for air-conditioning and other on-train services.

Rolling stock for the electrified Alger suburban network will consist of a fleet of 64 four-car Flirt electric multiple-units being built by Swiss supplier Stadler Bussnang under a SFr600m contract. Each set will have 136 seats and space for around 1 000 standees up to four sets will be able to run in multiple. Delivery is scheduled to start in mid-2008 and continue to the end of 2010 (RG 5.06 244).

SNTF is also expecting to take delivery of a fleet of 30 Co-Co diesel locomotives from EMD under a US$82m contract 16 will be GT36CW locos for freight duties and the other 14 are GT36HCW units for hauling passenger trains.

  • CAPTION: Interior design for first class coach being refurbished at SNTF's workshops at Sidi Bel Abbes