Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Focus On: The ONCF

One of the things I was looking forward to during my trip to Morocco was the chance of riding the Office National Chemin de Fer (ONCF) - the Moroccan State Railroad company. Being from Chicago, I have a bit of an interest in trains (no, really) and while I’ve ridden plenty of metro systems throughout the world, this would be my first chance to ride intercity heavy rail outside of the US.

To be sure, taking the ONCF was partly born of necessity - inter-Moroccan air travel was expensive and not particularly convenient and renting a car would have been problematic given the distances I wanted to cover. Talking to people who had been in Morocco before, I came away with a pretty good feeling about the ONCF, but even then I still wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, Amtrak approaches third world levels of service on its own, and now I’d be taking the train in Africa.

Well, as I’ve mentioned before, Morocco is not Africa and is certainly not a developing country. And the ONCF was - quite simply - the only way I could imagine traveling in the country. Yeah, trains were a little late once or twice, but certainly no worse than the US. And while they were perhaps a little dated (I’d guess they were comparable in levels of comfort to US trains in, say the fifties to the seventies) they were more than serviceable.

One quirk of the ONCF which I feel compelled to share with you however, should you ever find yourself in Morocco, is that First Class is a rip-off. In first class, you have assigned seating in a six person compartment (3x3 facing each other). Whereas in Second Class, it’s 2x2 open seating. Basically my First Class ticket entitled me to sit by the door of the compartment, two seats away from the window, staring at someone for four hours. In Second Class, I could pick my own (window) seat. The comfort level was the same (maybe in the summer an air conditioned compartment is worth it. In February? Climate control wasn’t an issue.). Needless to say, I rode Second Class with my First Class ticket (thoroughly confusing the conductor in the process).

Finally, any railroad that has orange trees growing in its stations has to be doing something right.

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