Four major projects are under development to expand the Tunisian capital's rail network over the next 15 years as urban growth continues to drive up patronage, reports Zouhayer Ben Abdelkader

THIS YEAR is due to see the formal launch of plans to develop a high-capacity express rail network serving the greater Tunis area. To be completed over the next 15 years, the 85 route-km Réseau Ferroviaire Rapide is intended to form the backbone of the Tunisian capital's expanding rail network, and help to boost the market share of public transport.

Since the 1990s, Tunis has been growing at an astonishing rate, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the Maghreb region. The population now exceeds 2 million inhabitants, and growth is expected to continue at 1·5% a year bringing the forecast population to 2·84 million in 2021.

The built-up area in the Greater Tunis region has doubled in the past 20 years, and further expansion is envisaged as new satellite suburbs take shape over the next 15 years. Major developments are underway in the northeast and west, whilst widescale revitalisation of the historic city centre began in the late 1990s.

This rapid growth has put considerable pressure on the capital's transport networks, and particularly on the main arterial roads. The total number of daily trips now stands at 3·1 million, with demand forecast to grow by around 2·6% per year to no less than 5·7 million trips per day in 2021.

Public transport's market share has fallen from 68% in 1977 to 40% in 2002, equivalent to 1·3 million trips a day, but the city's light rail and bus services are increasingly struggling to cope with the demand. With an official objective of maintaining market share at around the current 40% level, heavy rail options are now seen as the best way to support urban mobility and future economic development.

According to Mahmoud Ben Fadhl, Director of Land Transport at the Ministry of Transport, improvements to the public transport network around Tunis are amongst the most important projects in the country. No less than 2·4bn dinars was invested in land transport during 2002-06, and much of this was spent on urban projects in Tunis. Schemes currently underway include the extension of the light rail network, and electrification of the Tunis - Borj Cedria suburban line. A feasibility study has been commissioned for development of an integrated rail network covering the Greater Tunis area, which is expected to take shape between now and 2021.

Light rail and metro

Thanks to financing from the European Investment Bank, light rail operator Transtu has begun a major programme for the rehabilitation of its existing 34 km network as well as the construction of two extensions.

Work is underway on a 7 km branch running south from Med Ali to El Mourouj. After a closely-fought contest with a Siemens-led consortium, Alstom was selected both to undertake tracklaying and to supply 30 Citadis LRVs.

The first two cars were formally handed over to Transtu Chairman Chedly Hajri on March 14. Due to enter service in July, they are to be used initially on Route 1 services to Ben Arous.

Separate tenders were called in 2006 for tracklaying and electrical works on the other new extension, with the intention that contracts would be awarded early in 2007. This 5·5 km route will extend Line 4 westwards from Den Den to the university campus at Manouba.

Five groups were shortlisted for the electrical works contract, covering substations and overhead line equipment and valued at k3·9m the Portuguese consortum of Efacec and Somafel was selected ahead of Siemens, Alstom, ABB and Vossloh France. Neither Siemens nor Alstom bid for the €20m civil engineering and tracklaying contract, leaving four local groups to battle it out. The winning bidder was Entreprise Gloulou, working with Vossloh France.

Vossloh participated in both tenders - this is thought to be the first time that it has bid in the Tunisian market, although it now owns Cogifer of France which has had an established presence in Tunisia for several decades. Cegelec of France also bid for the electrical works, but subsequently withdrew from the competition.

As well as the two extensions, Transtu is working on plans for a major upgrade of the light rail network in the city centre, and particularly the station at Place Barcelone. A technical and financial study is being undertaken for complete renewal of the central area trackwork at an estimated cost of €15m to €20m. Subject to the availability of financing, Transtu is expected to call tenders for the work within the next few months.

Tenders are also expected this year for a complete refurbishment of the 19 km double-track TGM light metro line serving the coastal suburbs of La Goulette and La Marsa to the east. As well as the supply and installation of new track, the package will include civil engineering and electrical works.

Suburban electrification

Meanwhile, Tunisian National Railways is still pushing ahead with plans to electrify its metre-gauge main line running southeast from the capital to Hammam-Lif and Borj Cedria, a distance of 23 km. This route already carries an intensive suburban service, with 126 trains carrying around 80 000 passengers on a typical working day. End-to-end journey time for stopping services is 45 min including 15 intermediate stops. Some trains run fast from Tunis to Hammam-Lif in just 18 min.

In 2001 SNCFT negotiated a ¥13bn loan from the Japan Bank for International Co-operation to fund the work (RG 4.01 p212), starting with the extension of double track from Hammam-Lif to Borj Cedria which has now been completed. Japanese firms were appointed as engineering consultants to draw up international tender documentation for the electrification, supply of new EMUs and extension of the suburban rolling stock depot at Borj Cedria. Tenders have already closed for the electrification work, with three consortia submitting technical proposals: Alstom/Ansaldo, Cegelec/Vossloh/TSO and Cobra of Spain.

The electrification project envisages the adoption of 2 x 25 kV autotransformer feeding, allowing the whole route to be powered from the 225 kV national electricity grid through a single traction substation.

As well as the actual electrification and the installation of a Scada monitoring system for the traction and high-voltage supply, work will include substantial quantities of track renewal, turnout replacement, immunisation or replacement of signalling, and reconstruction of all the stations and halts with higher platforms.

Tenders were called in 2005 for the supply of 23 four-car EMUs at an estimated cost of 120m dinars, but no contract was awarded. As a stop-gap measure, SNCFT called bids last year for 10 DMUs, and subsequently awarded a contract worth k24m to CFD of France. Another tender was issued on February 26 for 40 DMU cars at an estimated cost of €40m bids are due back by June 26. These single-class sets will be air-conditioned, with a minimum of 136 seats per unit. There will be 12 two-car sets for 160 km/h operation on standard gauge routes and eight metre gauge sets limited to 130 km/h.

RFR plans take shape

By far the most ambitious project under discussion at present is the five-line RFR network, which will relieve the light rail routes of their longer-distance traffic, add much-needed extra capacity and improve journey times to the outer suburbs.

As part of the RFR project the light rail network will be expanded to nine routes totalling 84 route-km, and bus services on 14 routes totalling 90 km will be upgraded with segregated rights-of-way. Three major interchanges are to be developed in the city centre, with 16 further metro/rail/bus interchange hubs in the suburbs. Enhancements to the rail network will be accompanied by measures to discourage car traffic, including higher parking charges in congested areas.

The five RFR express metro routes will each be around 20 km long, radiating from central Tunis. The existing metre gauge suburban route from Borj Cedria will become Line A, diverted to terminate at the light rail hub at Place Barcelone. The remaining routes are all envisaged as standard gauge. Line C would start from Mhamdia in the south and run through El Mourouj and Ben Arous to parallel Line A inwards from Jbel Jeloud to the present Tunis passenger station. Line D will follow the Sncft standard gauge alignment as far as Goubaa and then turn north to meet a light rail extension at Mnihla. Line E would branch off this line and turn southwest through Ezzouhour to Essijoumi. Services on Lines C, D and E would all continue northwards from Tunis station over the new Line F to Ariana, via Tunis Marine, Borjel and the international airport.

Development of the network between 2007 and 2021 is expected to cost around 3·2bn dinars, and the government hopes that much of the funding can be obtained in the form of soft loans. It has approached JBIC to help fund the civil engineering work, tracklaying, electrification and signalling, plus the purchase of a fleet of double-deck trains. By far the biggest single element would be the purchase of a fleet of 55 trainsets, each formed of two five-car EMUs.

Construction of the RFR network is expected to take around 15 years, beginning with a first phase costed at 1·7bn dinars. This covers the inner sections of each of the four new routes, adding up to 29 route-km in total, plus an initial build of rolling stock, stabling depot and maintenance workshops. Line C would be built as far as Bir Kassaa, Line D to Goubaa, Line E to Zahrouni station in Ezzouhour, and Line F as far as Borjel. In its five-year budget for 2007-11, the government expects to award contracts totalling 950m dinars, which will result in contract payments totalling around 600m dinars.

Within the next few months, the government expects to set up a separate state-owned company to oversee the detailed planning of the RFR network and undertake project management during the construction phase. This will probably draw on staff from both Sncft and Transtu. The government plans to take an equity stake of 240m dinars in the company, and to invite proposals for other sources of external funding.

  • CAPTION: SNCFT's existing suburban services in Tunis are hauled by MLW-built 040 DK diesel locos, although new DMUs are on order from CFD
  • CAPTION: Contracts for the first phase of the RFR express metro network are to be awarded in the 2007-11 national plan period
  • CAPTION: The first of 30 Citadis low-floor cars being supplied by Alstom to provide extra capacity on the light rail network was being tested at Aytré in November 2006