Turkish President Abdullah Gul (3rd R), Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (4th R), Somalian President Hasan Sheikh Mahmud (2nd R) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) listen to the train driver at the Uskudar Marmaray station.
TURKEY has opened world’s first underwater tunnel connecting two continents, fulfilling an Ottoman sultan’s dream 150 years ago in a three-billion-euro mega project.
The Marmaray tunnel runs under the Bosporus, the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and divides Istanbul between Asia and Europe. The tunnel is 13.6km long, including an underwater stretch of 1.4km.
It is among a number of large infrastructure projects under the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that have helped boost the economy but also have provoked a backlash of public protest.
“I wish from God that the Marmaray that we are inaugurating will be a benefit to our Istanbul, to our country, to all of humanity,” Mr Erdogan said at the opening ceremony.
Officials hope that with up to 1.5 million passengers a day, the tunnel will ease some of Istanbul’s chronic traffic, particularly over the two bridges linking the two sides of the city. A more distant dream is that the tunnel may become part of a new train route for rail travel between Western Europe and China.
The underwater portion of the tunnel wasn’t dug, but was dropped in sections to the sea bottom – the immersed-tube method used around the world.
Turkish officials say that at more than 55m deep, it is the world’s deepest railway tunnel of its type.
Turkey is for the first time connecting its European and Asian sides with a railway tunnel, completing a plan initially proposed by an Ottoman sultan about 150 years ago.
Started in 2005 and scheduled to be completed in four years, the project was delayed by important archaeological finds, including a 4th century Byzantine port, as builders began digging under the city.
Rejecting any fears that the tunnel could be vulnerable to earthquakes in a region of high seismic activity, Turkish Transportation Minister Binali Yildirim said that it is designed to withstand a massive 9.0 magnitude quake. He calls it “the safest place in Istanbul.”
The tube sections are joined by flexible joints that can withstand shocks.
Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid is said to have proposed the idea of a tunnel under the Bosporus about a century and a half ago. One of his successors, Abdulhamid, had architects submit proposals in 1891, but the plans were not carried out.
The tunnel is just one of Mr Erdogan’s large-scale plans. They include a separate tunnel being built under the Bosporus for passenger cars, a third bridge over the strait, the world’s biggest airport, and a massive canal that would bypass the Bosporus.
The projects have provoked charges that the government is plunging ahead with city-changing plans without sufficient public consultation. The concern fueled protests that swept Turkey in June.
Officials hope the tunnel will eventually carry 1.5 million passengers a day, easing some of Istanbul’s chronic traffic problems.
Tuesday’s ceremony on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic was attended by Mr Erdogan and other officials, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose country was heavily involved in the construction and financing of the railway tunnel project.
Japan’s Seikan tunnel linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Hokkaido is the world’s deepest, getting 140 metres below the seabed and 240m below sea level. The Channel Tunnel linking Britain and France is as much as 75m below sea level.
The inauguration of the ambitious scheme – dubbed “the project of the century” by the government – coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of modern Turkey.
The idea was first floated by Ottoman sultan Abdoul Medjid in 1860 but technical equipment at the time was not good enough to take the project further.
However the desire to build an undersea tunnel grew stronger in the 1980s and studies also showed that such a tunnel would be feasible and cost-effective.
Mr Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, revived the plan in 2004 as one of his mega projects for the bustling city of 16 million people – which also include a third airport, a third bridge across the Bosphorus and a canal parallel to the international waterway to ease traffic.
His ambitions were one cause for the massive anti-government protests that swept the country in June, with local residents complaining the premier’s urban development plans were forcing people from their homes and destroying green space.
Mr Erdogan’s critics accuse him of bringing forward the inauguration of the Bosphorus tunnel in time for municipal elections in March 2014.
The project will not be fully operational immediately and construction is expected to continue for several more years.
Construction of the tunnel started in 2004 and had been scheduled to take four years but was delayed after a series of major archaeological discoveries.
Some 40,000 objects were excavated from the site, notably a cemetery of some 30 Byzantine ships, which is the largest known medieval fleet.
But these unexpected finds eventually frustrated Mr Erdogan, who complained two years ago that artefacts were trumping his plans to transform Istanbul’s cityscape.
“First (they said) there was archaeological stuff, then it was clay pots, then this, then that. Is any of this stuff more important than people?”
Transport is a major problem in Istanbul, and each day two million people cross the Bosphorus via two usually jammed bridges.
“While creating a transportation axis between the east and west points of the city, I believe it will soothe the problem… with 150,000 passenger capacity per hour,” said Istanbul’s mayor Kadir Topbas.