A commuter rail running through a tunnel beneath the Bosphorus Strait, part of what is being called the “Iron Silk Road” by the Turkish government, is just the first phase of major changes and investment opportunities coming for Istanbul—and, by extension, for the rest of Turkey and the entire region.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took an idea first conceived of in 1860 by an Ottoman sultan—linking the continents of Europe and Asia via a tunnel beneath the Bosphorus Strait—and, following other ambitious men at various stages in Turkey’s history, acted on it.
But instead of being content to allow the tunnel to languish in the planning stages—it had been envisioned as a rail tunnel since 1891, when another Ottoman sultan, Abdulhamid, set French engineers the task of designing such a tunnel—Erdogan strong-armed it through to reality.
But that’s just part of the larger-than-life project he plans for this city of 16 million. The massive modernization plan, which his critics call “pharaonic”, includes not just the first-ever subsea rail tunnel to link two continents but also a third bridge over the Bosphorus, another airport destined to become the busiest in the world, a canal around half of Istanbul, atomic power plants and a massive mosque perched atop a hill that would oversee the complete transformation of the city.
Neither the discovery of an archaeologically significant Byzantine seaport during tunnel excavations nor huge public protests at Erdogan’s imperial manner of progress have done anything more than slow the process. The commuter rail line beneath the Bosphorus, begun in 2004 and built by a Japanese/Turkish consortium, was launched at the end of October, on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish republic. Called the Marmaray, it is so named by combining the name of the Sea of Marmara with the Turkish word “ray,” meaning train.
Originally the entire tunnel was supposed to be operational by this year. However, when the rail upgrades are complete, the suburban passenger line, with planned capacity to carry 75,000 passengers per hour in each direction, is expected to reduce urban crowding, traffic congestion—two million people use the city’s two bridges to cross the Bosphorus each day—and pollution.
The existing passenger rail line only accounted for some 3.6% of all trips in and around the city. At completion, Marmaray is projected to draw 28%, which is on a par with New York and London. Rail freight, which will come later, will also add capacity.
The modernization being done on the rest of the rail system including upgraded tracks, capacity, safety features, and rolling stock, will pave the way for a future integrated network of Istanbul’s passenger and freight lines that can move beyond the city and link with systems that travel across Europe and Asia.
In addition to the trains that will use the underwater crossing, the country’s transportation ministry announced in early November that it will hold a tender in December to build yet another tunnel, this one for the passage of motor vehicles.
John Blank, chief equity strategist for Zack’s, said that Erdogan’s is a “build it and they will come” mentality similar to that which spawned Dubai’s modern successes. “It strikes me as, this man reads a lot of history and is a little jealous of what’s going on in Dubai, so he’s trying to assert the supremacy of the Turkish model and history,” he said. In addition, Turkey offers advantages that Dubai, with all its glittering businesses, doesn’t: a more secure political environment and access for Muslims to access western Europe, he said.