MOROCCAN National Railways (ONCF) was warmly welcomed into the club of countries operating a high-speed railway during the UIC World Congress on High-Speed, which was held in Marrakech on March 7-10.

This was the first time the event has been held since the 183km, 320km/h line from Tangier to Kenitra opened in November 2018. ONCF is understandably proud of what it has achieved. Al Boraq trains, which operate between Tangier and Casablanca, are a symbol of Morocco’s steady modernisation. The railway has strong ridership and is highly reliable while the associated Institute of Railway Training (IFF) is also providing a conveyer belt for new talent to enter the country’s railway industry. The high-speed railway also increasingly sources its energy from a wind farm, emphasising its credibility as a truly green alternative to road and air.

ONCF is working on a Dirhams 50bn ($US 4.81bn) project to extend the high-speed line by 390km to Casablanca and Marrakech and 239km to Agadir. Interestingly, Morocco was presented as an example that high-speed rail is no longer a venture reserved solely for the richest countries. Delegates heard how the climate crisis is encouraging more and more governments to explore high-speed rail as a clean alternative for transporting people over longer distances. Confirmed projects in Korea, the Czech Republic and Poland were all highlighted in addition to many of the schemes mentioned in this column last month.

The tide also appears to be turning in countries with long-held ambitions for high-speed rail but where delivery has been politically difficult. This includes the United States, where the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is re-energising long-promised projects, and Australia, where pro-rail prime minister, Mr Anthony Albanese, is talking up the Melbourne - Sydney - Brisbane project. A new High-Speed Rail Authority will begin work in June and supporters say that it is simply the only option to deliver meaningful modal shift and to decarbonise Australian transport as its population grows.

Similar arguments are being made for the vastly ambitious trans-African high-speed network and the 49,400km European network proposed by the Community of European Railways and Infrastructure Companies (CER), AllRail and Europe’s Rail in February.

Yet there was a vast elephant in the room in Marrakech: how to find the huge sums of cash required to build high-speed railways on the scale and at the pace needed to address the climate crisis.

ONCF spoke of its desire to attract private finance to support its ambitions. Infrastructure Portugal (IP) also touted a public-private partnership (PPP) model for its high-speed project. However, private finance cannot meet the full cost of these projects. Revenue from operations is insufficient to match high upfront capital costs, especially in developing countries where fares will remain relatively low. Arguably the need here is most pressing - demand for land transport in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia is expected to increase substantially, matching East Asia, the region with the highest demand at present, by 2050. The planet cannot afford for private road vehicles powered by internal combustion engines to account for all of these journeys.

With budgets stretched, creativity is needed. Disappointingly the public sessions of the congress tended to focus on the virtues of high-speed and not on how to address these challenges head on.

The Luxembourg Rail Protocol, which aims to improve access to private finance for railway equipment, substantially reducing the cost of railway rolling stock, was one of the few tangible solutions highlighted. Encouragingly, the protocol is increasingly finding favour among governments, with the European Union and Britain expected to follow Spain in signing up.

Nevertheless, UIC director general, Mr François Davenne, did hint at a way forward during his closing address, where he spoke of the need for a “paradigm shift” in how infrastructure is funded.

Davenne pitched the idea for a carbon pricing mechanism that generates funds for rail infrastructure projects, offering a clear payback for modes that avoid emitting carbon, in turn encouraging modal shift. “I think it is important to create sources of financing that take into account the necessity of strong modal shift to deliver the United Nations’ climate objectives,” Davenne said.

Davenne says the framework for such a mechanism is the reform and expansion of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) agreed by MEPs and EU governments in 2022, although not yet formally approved by the European Council or parliament. The ETS is the world’s first cap and trade scheme, where a limit is placed on the right to emit specified pollutants over a designated area and companies can bid for and trade emission rights.

Mr Alberto Mazzola, executive director of CER, expressed his support for the hypothesis. The availability of such a fund could help to meet the estimated €410-855bn cost of Europe’s planned high-speed network. Davenne is also optimistic that the model could be adopted in regions where infrastructure financing is more tricky, such as Africa.

While the idea remains in its infancy, Davenne hopes to build momentum in the coming months. He envisages the adoption of a more formal resolution by the UIC by the end of this year. There is also the opportunity for rail operators and industry, and the public transport sector represented by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP), to speak with one voice and advocate such a mechanism at COP28, which will be held in Dubai in November.

Expanding the use of already electrified infrastructure by encouraging modal shift to rail is the logical way of decarbonising transport. Trans-continental high-speed railway networks will clearly not be built overnight. But Davenne’s idea offers the foundation for a viable long-term funding mechanism that can solve rail’s age-old issue of having to secure sufficient investment for major projects. It’s a cause that we all should get behind.