Turkey opens first Asia-Europe rail link spanning Bosphorus

Prime minister calls the Japan-financed link the project of the century; critics call it 'pharaonic'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 4:19am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 October, 2013, 4:21pm

Turkey opened the world's first underwater rail link between two continents yesterday, connecting Asia and Europe and allowing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to realise a project dreamt up by Ottoman sultans more than a century ago.

The engineering feat spans 13 kilometres linking Europe with Asia some 60 metres below the Bosphorus Strait. Called the Marmaray, it will carry subway commuters in Europe's biggest city and eventually serve high-speed and freight trains.

"Today we are realising the dreams of 150 years ago, uniting the two continents and the people of these two continents," Erdogan said at the opening, which coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the modern Turkish republic.

The 5.5 billion Turkish lira (HK$21.5 billion) tunnel is one of Erdogan's "mega projects," an unprecedented building spree designed to change the face of Turkey.

They include a 50km canal to rival the Suez that would render half of Istanbul an island, an airport that will be the world's busiest and a giant mosque atop an Istanbul hill.

Atomic power stations are on the drawing board. A third bridge over the Bosphorus, whose construction has already felled one million trees, is under way.

The plans have fired up Erdogan's opponents who dub them "pharaonic projects", a symptom of an increasingly authoritarian style of government.

They accuse Erdogan, still broadly popular after 10 years in power, of bypassing city planners and bulldozing history to make way for pet projects in an ancient city that was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, then after the 1453 Islamic conquest became the centre of Ottoman power.

"System error. Please load another system. Your time's up Tayyip," read a banner hung by a leftist group at the Maiden's Tower, on an islet at the southern entrance to the Bosphorus.

A small environmental effort to save an Istanbul park in late May grew into the biggest anti-government protests in decades. Besides engineering projects, Erdogan has wrought radical social change, breaking the traditional power of the secularist army and drawing accusations from some that he pursues an Islamist agenda, something he denies.

Erdogan argues his policies meet the needs of a rapidly expanding and increasingly affluent population.

The prime miniser has called the Marmaray the project of the century and says it fulfils an age-old "dream of our ancestors".

Plans for a rail tunnel below the Bosphorus date to at least 1891, when Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, a patron of public works whom Erdogan frequently evokes, had French engineers draft a plan for a submerged tunnel on columns that was never built.

Today, the gleaming Marmaray is an immersed tube set in the seabed built by Japan's Taisei Corporation with Turkish partners Nurol and Gama. The bulk of financing came from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

"Japan and Turkey are the two wings of Asia. Let us dream together of a high-speed train departing from Tokyo, passing through Istanbul and arriving in London," said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who attended the opening.

Money for the other infrastructure schemes may prove more difficult to come by as global liquidity tightens, and that may force Erdogan to scale back plans or scrap some altogether, said Atilla Yesilada, an analyst with GlobalSource Partners.

The mega projects would add at least US$180 billion to Turkey's foreign debt stock, he said, further swelling an already massive current account deficit, which the IMF says may reach 7 per cent of economic output this year.

"Rather than having a social utility, some of these seem to be legacy projects: Erdogan trying to leave his mark on the Turkish landscape and history," Yesilada said. "It is like pharaohs building more pyramids to their names."

But Transport Minister Binali Yildirim dismissed the concerns about financing as mere envy.

"Half of the world is at war, the other half is in an economic slowdown, while Turkey is carrying out its big projects," he said. "There's no need for this jealousy."