Gaddafi revives Rhodes' African railway dream

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THE GREAT AGE of international rail travel in Africa could be revived by the end of the century, with the construction of a new trans-Maghreb line that will enable tourists to travel by train from Casablanca to the Valley of the Kings, 2,900 miles away in Egypt.

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya has signed a dollars 300m ( pounds 200m) deal with the Egyptians to fund the reconstruction of the railway, built by the Italians along the Libyan coast and destroyed during the Second World War. The proposed Maghreb line would link the British- and Belgian-built Egyptian network, the largest and oldest in Africa, with the cities of Morocco, using the French-built Tunisian and Algerian lines.

During the Second World War, German and British commandos blew up sections of the track to disrupt each others' supply lines, especially between Tobruk and Benghazi.

The trans-Maghreb link is the latest project of Colonel Gaddafi, who is obsessed by the idea of a federation among Arab, African or Maghreb nations. He sees the railway as a way for Libya to break out of the international isolation imposed after the Lockerbie bombing. Last week, he told Western guests, in his tent at the Bab el-Aziziya barracks in Tripoli, that he was inviting foreign companies to tender for the project, which would 'cement Maghreb Arab unity'. The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, last week expressed enthusaism for the trans-Maghreb railway link. King Hassan of Morocco, who wants to turn his country into a route for European-African trade and tourism, is also interested.

The Libyans want to capitalise on the existing massive plant machinery and equipment imported to the country by a British firm, Brown & Root, the contractors who built the 'Great Man-made River', another grand Gaddafi project that pipes water from the aquifer of the south to the populated coastal centres.

If the Mahgreb project becomes reality, even grander vistas open up for railways in Africa. Colonel Gaddafi has awarded important construction and coach-building contracts to the South African rail network, Transnet, which runs a service from the Cape to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

This is the longest part of the Cape-to-Cairo railway, the uncompleted brainchild of British Empire statesman Cecil Rhodes, whose goal was the expansion of British power all over Africa.

In his Tripoli speech last week Colonel Gaddafi revived the dream of Rhodes, when he said he was looking forward to the day when one could travel from Marrakesh by train through Egypt and Sudan all the way to South Africa.