Marmaray connects continents under Bosphorus

Marmaray connects continents under Bosphorus

The first railway crossing under the Bosphorus, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul, opened yesterday, the 90th anniversary of the Turkish Republic.

The $4 billion project will not only provide an alternative for railway freight transportation between Asian and European markets, but is also expected to ease the traffic burden of the city of 14 million with a maximum daily capacity of 1.5 million passengers a day. Perhaps it will extend the terminal station of the Orient Express from being at the European end of Istanbul to Mumbai or Beijing as it will be a part of a high-speed train line between Istanbul and the Turkish capital Ankara from 2014 on.

Turkish Transportation Minister Binali Yıldırım said in a press tour prior to the opening that this was a unique project to combine urban, inter-city and international transportation in one. From 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., there will be commuters every 10 minutes, while the remaining hours will be allocated to cargo transport. The construction of a parallel tunnel is under way to be in service in 2015 for cars only. That year the third suspension bridge over the Bosphorus is expected to be in service too, enabling both road and railroad transportation. That bridge is slated to have a connection with a new airport in the northwest of Istanbul that will have a passenger capacity of 100 million and six runways.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was proud to have the first official trip from Üsküdar station on the Asian side to Yenikapı station on the European with his respective Japanese and Romanian colleagues, Shinzo Abe and Victor Ponta. The deepest submerged underwater tube (62 meters below the surface at one point) in the world was constructed with Japanese technology; Japan’s Tansei and Turkish construction companies Nurol and Gama constructed it. (Japanese Mitsubishi is going to construct Turkey’s second nuclear power plant near Black Sea town of Sinop, a $22 billion project.)

Actually, the construction which was supposed to be completed by Republic Day of 2009 was delayed for four years, but for good reason. The archaeological findings that became possible thanks to the digs were significant, as they showed that the settlement history of Istanbul goes back nearly 8,500 years now, not 6,000 as was previously known. A total of 37 shipwrecks and a fraction of the 35,000 archaeological findings will be exhibited in an archeopark to be opened at Yenikapı, in the exact place of an ancient (now hundreds of meters inland and some five meters below surface) port which was not known of before.

But the opening is not without debate. The Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) advised people not to use the tube because of safety reasons, claiming that the construction was near to a major fault line (in a city which experienced a major earthquake in 1999) and that the necessary quality-control measures had not been completed. They claim the opening was rushed by Erdoğan for political reasons, in order to get it ready by the Republic Day. The opposition parties have also criticized the government because of political speculation. The government in return made the first 15 days of the cross-continental railroad trip free in order to let Istanbulites enjoy and get used to the link.

Answering the claims, Yıldırım said all technical problems had been solved and that the crossing was designed to resist a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. “It will be more resistant to earthquakes than unfortunately all houses in Istanbul” he said.

The official opening of the crossing, however, skipped the first station on the European side, Sirkeci, due to technical reasons.

The project is a gift to Istanbul on the 90th anniversary of the republic, making an Ottoman dream to come true; the first suggestions about a railroad crossing go back some 150 years ago.

The Marmaray (a word made up by combining the Marmara Sea and “ray,” the Turkish for “rail”) connected two continents under the water yesterday, but it was not enough to connect the rifts in Turkish politics as the country prepares for a series of elections.