Tunnel linking Europe and Africa inches closer

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The Independent Online

The dream of a tunnel between Africa and Europe is coming closer to reality, but it may be another 20 years before you can hop on the fast train at Seville and disembark in Tangier 90 minutes later.

After decades of plans and geological tests, the governments of both Spain and Morocco are now keen to push ahead with a twin-track rail tunnel linking the two countries. Madrid and Rabat gave the project a boost late last year when they contracted a French, Spanish, Moroccan and Swiss consortium to draw up fresh blueprints for the under-sea tunnel. Preliminary work could begin this year, following a report on the complex geology of the Strait of Gibraltar.

The technical obstacles are formidable. "It's a challenge without precedent in the construction of large-scale infrastructure, pushing the limit of what is technically viable," said Giovanni Lombardi, the head of the participating Swiss company Lombardi Engineering. "The Channel Tunnel was child's play in comparison. The depth of the Channel, and the pressure of water there, is much less; marine currents are much weaker and the rock more solid."

Morocco and Spain are separated at the narrowest point by only nine miles. The opposite coastline is so clearly visible across the strip of Mediterranean that you imagine a bridge would span the gap easily. But the bridge option was discarded years ago - it would have needed 900-metre supports, and would not have withstood the fearsome winds and currents that lash the Mediterranean bottleneck.

Nor will the proposed tunnel join the two continents at the narrowest point. The Strait plunges to nearly 1,000 metres in depth, so a longer, shallower tunnel descending to only 300 metres is planned. It would run from Morocco's Cape Malabata, near Tangier, to Punta Paloma near Cadiz in Spain, an underwater stretch of some 28km. With gently sloping approaches on either side, the full length of the tunnel will be 40km.

Compounding the difficulties, however, is the seabed around Gibraltar, which is made of shifting sands. The tunnel must run deep beneath the seabed.

Rabat is particularly keen on the project, seeing a fixed link as tangible evidence that the country is closer to Europe. "We've done a tremendous amount of work to make this dream come true, to go from an idea into something we can transform into reality," said Karim Ghellab, Morocco's Transport minister, this week. "It's hard to predict a date, but it's a project that will happen."

No one has put a figure on the final cost, though estimates range from €6.5bn to €13bn. Both Spain and Morocco have applied for funds from the EU, and promise lucrative private contracts.

The partner countries hope the tunnel would improve prosperity in southern Spain and northern Morocco; traffic between the two is already huge. Up to a million Moroccans live in Spain,more still in France and elsewhere in Europe, while Morocco hopes to attract 10 million tourists in 2010.

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