Turkish engineers swelled with pride when the first Bogazici Koprusu (Bosporus Bridge) opened in 1973, spanning Istanbul’s historic channel between Asia and Europe. When opened, it was the longest suspension bridge outside the U.S. It was followed 15 years later by the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Koprusu (Conqueror Sultan Mehmet Bridge), and a third bridge is under discussion.
Now Istanbul’s municipal engineers have completed another metropolitan project, hailed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “the project of the century;” the twin submerged 0.84-mile (1.4 kilometer) Marmaray (“Marmara Rail”) railway tunnels beneath the Bosporus, connecting Asia’s Uskudar with Europe’s Sarayburnu, better known to generations of romantics as Seraglio Point, home to Topkapi and the fabled Ottoman sultans (Anadolu Ajansi, October 12).
Erdogan called the Marmaray project, first planned by Ottoman authorities in 1860, the realization of a 148-year-old dream. Erdogan entered the tunnel and walked underwater for nearly a mile westward from Uskudar before surfacing in Sarayburnu.
Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim was effusive about the project, telling journalists:
“This project is an engineering miracle. We are using the latest technology in the world here. In this sense, it is the most advanced project in the world compared to its counterparts around the globe. The whole world, especially infrastructure specialists, is following this project very closely. There is no other project in the world built at this depth (Zaman, September 24).”
Yildirim spoke candidly of the difficulties involved, saying, “Moreover, the project is built in an earthquake zone very close to a fault. There are many currents at the bottom of the strait, and all of them flow in different directions. So you can understand the difficulty of the project” (Zaman, September 24). While parts of the Marmaray tunnel will eventually run just 3.7 miles from the active North Anatolian fault line, officials say confidently that the tunnel will be strong enough to resist earthquakes measuring up to nine on the Richter Scale (BBC, May 2, 2005).
The new Marmaray line goes underground on the European Bosporus shore at Yedikule and continues through the new Yenikapi and Sirkeci underground stations before passing under the Bosporus to connect to the new Uskudar underground station before emerging at Sogutlucesme. Marmaray’s entire upgraded and new railway system will total approximately 46 miles. Marmaray’s major structures and systems include the immersed tube tunnel, bored tunnels, cut-and-cover tunnels, graded structures, three new underground stations, 37 renovated and upgraded surface stations, an operations control center, maintenance facilities, an upgrade of existing tracks including a new third track, completely new electrical and mechanical systems, and modern railway vehicles.
Marmaray’s first comprehensive feasibility study was carried out in 1987 (www.marmaray.com/turindex.asp). The project was first approved by Turkey’s Finance Ministry in December 2001. Authorities initially optimistically predicted the project’s completion in 2005 (Anadolu Ajansi, December 11, 2001). The cost was originally estimated at $1.2 billion; but by June 2003 it had doubled to $2.5 billion (Anadolu Ajansi, June 19, 2003). Marmaray’s eventual cost is now estimated at $3.6 billion. Erdogan laid the cornerstone for the project on May 9, 2004 (Yeni Safak, May 10, 2004). Major funding was provided by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the European Investment Bank.
The Marmaray project is hardly a lumbering metropolitan transit system, as it was designed to accommodate trains traveling up to 60 miles per hour. It will have the capacity to carry 150,000 passengers an hour in two directions, with trains running at two-minute intervals (Milliyet, December 14, 2001). At a depth of 200 feet Marmaray’s 11 segments of tunnel tubing are the deepest submerged tubes in the world. The segments were placed in a trench supported by 2,770 piles and were then backfilled.
Not surprisingly, from the outset of the construction, Yildirim emphasized that all possible security measures were being undertaken (TRT 1 Television, May 1, 2005). Ironically, the next year the Russian cargo ship Volgodon 213, which had not bothered to pick up a local pilot to navigate the Bosporus, crashed into a Marmaray construction pontoon in Kandilli. The authorities were forced to close the strait in both directions for several hours to deal with the accident. (Anadolu Ajansi, November 29, 2006).
Marmaray was originally scheduled for completion in 2009 but archeological excavations delayed the project for two years. When the Marmaray Rail Tube Tunnel and Commuter Rail Mass Transit System opens for subway and train traffic in October 2011, the first beneficiaries will be Istanbul’s long suffering commuters. Municipal authorities estimate that as a result of Marmaray, railway and subway journeys within Istanbul will increase by between 8 percent and 28 percent.
Less heralded are the economic and military implications of Marmaray, which rival the strategic implications of the Trans-Siberian Railway. As railway tracks on both sides of the Bosporus will be connected to each other through Marmaray, it will facilitate the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed train project, which will reduce the journey between the capital and Istanbul to only three hours (Anadolu Ajansi, August 31, 2007).
Marmaray will also make railway transport possible from Europe to China following the completion of Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway, connecting the Turkish, Georgian, and Azerbaijani railway networks, placing the BTK “Iron Silk Road” network in the center of a transportation corridor going from China via the Caspian to Europe. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said of the BTK, “It is a big project. Within the scope of the project, trains which will depart from China will pass the Caspian, Baku, Tbilisi, and Kars, and reach Istanbul. Then, they will pass under the Bosporus through the continuing Marmaray project and travel across Europe, and then pass under the English Channel to reach London” (Anadolu Ajansi, November 21, 2007). Furthermore, Marmaray and the BTK will provide an uninterrupted railway link to the Central Asian republics and their rising oil and natural gas production.
Freight trains will use the Marmaray lines between 11 P.M. and 6 A.M. According to Erdogan, service vehicles with tires will be able to travel into the tunnel from an access point close to the Marmaray line.
In an example of history repeating itself, with the completion of Marmaray Turkish railway engineers have solved the Bosporus bottleneck that represented the weak link in Germany’s Berlin to Baghdad railway, one of the underlying causes of Great Power tension before 1914. When the project is complete, Turkey will have an “interior line” railway whose strategic value equals that of the Trans-Siberian for shifting passengers, cargo, oil, or military supplies across Anatolia.
While grateful Istanbul commuters will be the first and most grateful patrons of the new line, NATO planners will doubtless be burning their midnight oil to factor Marmaray into their equations as they generate war-game permutations of the new Great Game.