The Iron Ore Express

by Chadd McGlone

Chapel Hill, NC, United States

The Nouadhibou train station in Mauritania consists of a group of small white buildings in the middle of a sandy plain. Looking around, you see nothing but beige ground and blue sky. If you happen to be traveling to the small mining town of Zouerat, the Iron Ore Express is the only way to go. This train is nearly three kilometers long and makes three 674-kilometer journeys to the coast and back each day.

One of the World’s Longest Trains

Standing along the track, even though the Iron Ore Express is one of the world’s longest trains, you might not even see it in the massive cloud of sand it whips up. Once the train storms into the station, you would hear the loud rumbling of its 4 locomotives pulling more than 220 freight cars.

All Aboard

For about 1,000 ouguiya (about $4), you can purchase entry onto one of the two or three passenger cars, where you might find a perch on a wooden carriage seat. Once on board the crowded car, you will share your ride with many local men. The locals make the journey as comfortable as possible, spreading blankets over the floor and sharing biscuits and jam with each other.

For about three times more than the price of a regular seat, you can purchase a first class ticket and gain access to a smaller room complete with bunk beds stacked 3 high. Or, if you happened to spend your last ouguiya on a large bowl of thieboudiene (a fish and rice dish), then you can ride for free on a pile of ore on top of one of the ore cars. Just bring your blanket, your leftovers, and have a picnic!

The Trip

Your picnic will last about 17 hours. Traveling at a top speed of 50 kilometers per hour, the Iron Ore Express passes through small desert communities on its way to Zouerat. After about 6 hours, the train makes its first stop in the dusty outpost of Choum, where departing passengers hire taxis to reach their homes beyond the sandy dunes.

The second stop, about 2 hours later, is intended to provide passengers with a short break to enjoy a quiet moment in the desert and an opportunity to answer nature’s call (the train contains no private bathrooms). Finally, after 17 long hours, you will disembark among piles of iron ore in Zouerat.

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Math Questions

  1. If a standard freight car can carry about 85 tons of ore, how much ore does each train carry? Write a linear equation to model the amount of ore x freight cars can carry.
  2. Distinguish between first and second class. How many people need to fit into the first class car for the train company to make profit?
  3. How many cars can each locomotive pull?
  4. If each ore car is 13.5 m long, each locomotive is 20 m long, and each passenger car is 12 m long, about how long is the train?
  5. If the entire trip takes 17 hours to complete and Choum is 6 hours from the beginning, what fraction of the entire trip have you traveled at that stop?
  6. If the entire trip is 674 km, about how far is Choum from Nouadhibou? What is the average speed of the train for the entire trip? How many miles is Choum from Zourat?
  7. One dollar is worth approximately how many Ouguiya? Five Ouguiya is worth approximately how many cents?
  8. A first class ticket costs how much?
  9. What is the maximum speed for the Iron Ore Express in mph?
  10. Raj can type 35 words a minute. He needs to type a final copy of his English composition, which is 4,200 words long. How long will it take Raj to type his paper?
  11. Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960. How many years has Mauritania been an independent country?
  12. Because of severe drought and desertification of the land, the population in Mauritania’s capital city, Nouakchott, grew from 134,700 to approximately 728,600 between 1977 and 2000. Likewise, Nouadhibou’s population almost quintupled from 21,900 in 1997 to 107,900 in 2000.
    a. What is the average annual growth rate for both of these cities?
    b. If the cities continued to grow at the current rate, how big will they be in 2050?
    c. Is this growth linear or exponential? Explain.
  13. How many km and miles does the train cover per day, week, …?
  14. If there are x people paying … How much money is made?
  15. Research the fastest train in the world and compare it to the Iron Ore express.
  16. What’s the flaw in this story? Edit the story to fix it.
  17. Create a schedule of stops for the train.

Write your own math question and submit it here

Extension Question

 Why do you think there are so few women on the train? What could be done to change this?

Write your own extension question and submit it here


  1. New York Times article that documents one writer’s journey
  2. video of a person riding on the train from Choum to Nouadhibou
  3. video showing you just how long the train is

Find a resource you think is helpful and submit it here

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