CONTRACTS are due to be awarded shortly for the construction of a light rail line in Tunis, linking the central station with the southwestern suburb of El Mourouj.

Expected to be completed next year, the line is the first of two 7 km extensions to the city's five-line light rail network opened in 1985-95. Société du Métro Léger de Tunis decided in mid-April to order 30 low-floor LRVs to boost the capacity of its present 134-car fleet, and shortlisted Alstom, Siemens and AnsaldoBreda for the final round of tenders.

According to SMLT Planning Director Salah Belaid, the existing network has reached its capacity limits, following an increase in annual ridership from 19 million in 1986 to 115 million in 2002. Daily traffic now stands at 440000 passengers/day, requiring 2 min headways and crush-loading conditions of 6 passengers/m2 on the busiest sections. Although much of the light rail network runs on segregated tracks, growing road congestion is causing increasing problems at junctions and on the street-running sections in the city centre.

Belaid revealed last month that the city had started to draw up a master plan for transport development in 2006-16. This envisages the construction of a 70 km four-line metro to relieve the busiest sections of the light rail network, which would gain a second cross-city trunk and further suburban lines adding a total of 35 km to the present 32 km. He says SMLT is also looking at the use of tram-train technology for the metro, allowing future integration with the present light rail routes, the TGM suburban line and SNTF heavy rail alignments.