- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2007


Engineers have dreamed of it for a quarter-century: linking Africa and Europe at the spot where the two cont- inents nearly meet across a strip of choppy water. Now a project for a high-speed rail tunnel there is gathering momentum, raising the prospect of an engineering feat equivalent to the Panama Canal or the Channel Tunnel tying Britain and France.

This tube for passengers, cars and freight would bore deep under the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow waterway where the Atlantic flows into the Mediterranean, and run from Tangier, Morocco, to the Spanish town of Tarifa at Europe’s southernmost tip, possibly extending farther both ways in the future. Big-name European engineering consultants brought in a few months ago are to complete a feasibility study this year.

“I think this project is a utopia that is becoming a reality,” said Angel Aparicio, president of the Spanish government agency overseeing the endeavor with Moroccan partners.

Besides improving economies on both sides of the strait, planners are excited by the idea of bridging two continents as far apart socially and culturally as they are close geographically.

But the technological challenges are vast: A test tunnel dug outside Tarifa a decade ago, for instance, unearthed a variety of soils, some on the mushy side, hardly suitable for anchoring such a grand structure.

The cost is unofficially projected to run over $13 billion, and engineers say the tunnel would take about 20 years to build. Spain and Morocco hope to receive European Union financing if the project gets under way.

There’s also the issue of whether the economic difference between Europe and Africa would doom the tunnel. Planners wonder whether Africa is too poor to provide a sustained, profitable flow of people and goods on the tunnel’s northbound section.

Even the popular Channel Tunnel, or Chunnel, which opened in 1994, is $16 billion in debt. The company operating it, Eurotunnel, received bankruptcy protection from creditors last year. The costs of digging the 30-mile undersea rail tunnel were greatly underestimated, and traffic predictions proved optimistic.

Still, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said last month he is fully committed to the Strait of Gibraltar project. He said the tunnel would “greatly speed growth, development and prosperity” on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Planners hope the tunnel will create “an integrated Euro-Mediterranean economic area” and be more than just a way to cross the strait, a journey now made by ferry. They envision a day when tracks from the tunnel would reach as far south in Morocco as Marrakech and allow for travel time just a fraction of what it is now.

Morocco’s tourism industry, which the government views as a key economic motor for the future, would benefit from a tunnel.

“Tourist flows will accelerate because people will be able to come with their own transport. For now, the need to cross by boat presents a psychological and practical barrier,” said Tajeddine el-Husseini, professor of international economic law at Mohamed V University in Rabat.

The biggest winners in Morocco would probably be exporters, who could ship their goods, mainly agricultural products, north more easily. Being able to send them to Europe by train rather than ship would also make for easier export of fragile products like tomatoes and flowers.

For decades the Strait of Gibraltar was a dangerous and often deadly conduit for Africans trying to reach Europe, as people packed small, rickety boats hoping to reach Spain and gain a toehold on the wealthy Continent. Because of a Moroccan security crackdown, these journeys are now attempted further west from the Western Sahara and Mauritania.

Ferryboats across the strait are not known to be a major lure for stowaways, so a very high security rail tunnel would probably not contribute to the flow of desperate Africans trying to reach Europe, either.

The Strait of Gibraltar, formed millions of years ago when land masses split to form Europe and Africa, is only nine miles wide at its narrowest point. But the water there is so deep that a rail tunnel would be like a roller coaster, making the journey so steep as to be out of the question.

Consequently, engineers have chosen a longer but shallower path covering about 22 miles. Even there, however, the water is about 1,000 feet deep, five to six times deeper than the water in the English Channel where the Chunnel runs.

Then there is the messy terrain at the bottom of the strait. “It is chaotic. The word is chaotic,” said Sebastian Sanchez, an engineer overseeing the tunnel test site in Tarifa.

It is muddy and unstable right at the seabed, unlike the harder surface at the bottom of the English Channel. Farther down are huge pockets of debris from tectonic slides — a moraine of sand, stones and mud that make for a digger’s nightmare.

The proposed two-tube link with a service tunnel in the middle would be about 1,650 feet below the surface of the water, the deepest underwater tunnel anywhere.

To these two challenges — extreme depth and dangerous terrain — add concern over whether the project would be economically viable. One study under way aims to determine if Africa’s poverty would make the tunnel busy in one direction but largely idle in the other.

“Nowhere else in the world do these three difficulties come together,” said Mr. Aparicio, head of the Spanish side of the project. His agency and the Moroccan partner are to recommend next year whether to go ahead; it is not clear when the governments might make their decision.

At Tarifa, a windy town of 10,000 known worldwide as a venue for kite surfing, many say the tunnel idea has been around forever and will remain a distant dream. “People here don’t see the project as something tangible,” said Mayor Miguel Manella. “They say: ‘I’ll never live to see that.’ ”

• AP correspondent John Thorne contributed to this article from Rabat, Morocco.

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