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All eyes are on Taksim Square in Istanbul this week, as riot police move in to confront protesters. A development proposal over an Istanbul park unleashed years of accumulated grievances.
This was always about more than trees. That’s the thing about Turkey — a lot goes on without most of us in the EU and North America even noticing. Just occasionally, as now, Turkey grabs the media limelight.
As with politics, so with transport in Turkey. The day will come when outsiders will suddenly wake up and realize that Turkey has a pretty good rail network. Make what you will of the Erdogan government, but under his controversial premiership, Turkey has pushed forward with a raft of development projects — and the railways have been key beneficiaries.
It may be that the park development in Istanbul will be the eventual undoing of Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a man whose capacity to heap sarcasm on his opponents does him no favors.
Linking Europe with Asia
Part of Erdogan’s legacy will be a number of major improvements in railway infrastructure. Several key projects have yet to be completed, most notably the undersea rail tunnel which will link Europe and Asia.
It’s called Project Marmaray and, if all goes smoothly in the final stages of this great engineering venture, then trains will be speeding under the Bosphorus by the end of this year. (And if it is delayed a little, as well it might be, we’d still bet our last Turkish lira that the Bosphorus railway line will be completed before the Berlin airport project).
Major high-speed rail projects in Turkey are now coming to fruition. Cast back just two years and the fastest trains from Ankara to Konya took nine hours. Today, they take less than two hours.
In March this year, Erdogan inaugurated the new high-speed service from Ankara to Eskisehir. That is also a two-hour journey, a great improvement over the previous journey time of eight hours. By the end of next year that service is due to be extended to Pendik, just 20 miles east of Istanbul. Many other new routes are under construction.
Bus vs. rail
The ever-reliable Man in Seat 61 rightly highlights that the country’s bus operators must be wondering about their future. He asks: “Do you really want to spend 12 hours in a bus, when you can travel on a civilized inexpensive air-conditioned train?” He goes on to note that travelers on Turkish railways are spared the terrible roadside development that mars major highways across the country. That, for us, has always been a major plus of rail travel. It is as true of some parts of Poland and Italy as it is of Turkey.
So there is one revolution on the streets of Turkey, one which has reminded us that coverage on Twitter is nowadays worth more than exposure on television. And there has been another revolution on Turkey’s railways, one that will surely benefit Turkish citizens and visitors to the country for many decades to come.