Turkey geared to expand high-speed train network

December 01, 2013, Sunday/ 00:00:00

Turkey's rail network lags behind many countries of similar size and economic status, but the country has invested billions of dollars to catch up, focusing on linking major cities with bullet train lines and upgrading its old and decaying tracks.

High-speed rail has been around since the 1960s, but it was not until the late '80s and early '90s that it became more widespread. Japan, which pioneered the technology, inaugurating its first line in 1964, is still a world leader. It has only been overtaken by China, which welcomed its own bullet trains as late as 2005 but now leads the world with 3,529 kilometers of high-speed lines. France, whose TGV system is one of the strongest in Europe, turned to the technology in 1981. And Germany, the engine of the EU economy, joined the club in 1991.

This mode of transport has proven so popular that more and more countries are hoping it will solve their transportation problems and reduce travel time. Turkey has major projects both under construction and being planned for the next 10 years. According to the International Union of Railways, it has already completed 444 kilometers of high-speed lines, linking Ankara to Eskişehir to the west and Ankara to Konya to the south. Eskişehir is soon to be connected to İstanbul, adding another 236 kilometers to the line and marking the fulfillment of one of the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) election pledges.

The government has set 2023, the centennial of the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey, as its target by which it hopes to also connect Ankara with Sivas in the east, and Ankara with Bursa and İzmir, the country's third-largest city and a major seaport, in the west.

Other planned extensions include Sivas to Erzincan, Ankara to Kayseri, and İstanbul to Bulgaria, among others, bringing the total length of high-speed rail lines to 2,805 kilometers -- on par with Germany, whose high-speed rail network will span 2,257 kilometers, planned projects included.

Upgrades and extensions to the global railway network will not come cheap, however. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states in its “Strategic Transport Infrastructure Needs to 2030” report, published in March 2012, that new railway construction, including maintenance, will require on average $130 billion annually through 2015 and $270 billion annually between 2015 and 2030. On aggregate, over $4 trillion will need to be spent to improve and expand the grid through 2030.

The Turkish government has allocated $23.5 billion for the upgrade and expansion of the country's rail network, according to the Investment Support and Promotion Agency, which operates under the Prime Ministry.

Train travel had been eclipsed by airlines, which could transport passengers over the same distance in a fraction of the time, but railways have been making a steady comeback. The TGV link between Paris and Marseilles, which opened in 2001, brings passengers from the center of Paris to downtown Marseilles in three hours, covering over 750 kilometers. Flights, including connections to and from the airport, require more time.

Turkey's busiest route is Ankara-İstanbul, with flights leaving every hour and buses every 15 minutes. This high demand is precisely why the long-awaited extension of the high-speed line from Ankara matters so much. Already, more and more people have been turning to trains for travel between Ankara, Eskişehir and Konya. In 2009, when the first line opened, 942,000 passengers chose high-speed rail, according to statistics compiled by Turkish State Railways (TCDD). A year later, this figure rose to 1.89 million. In 2011, when the Ankara-Konya line was inaugurated, the number stood at 2.56 million passengers. And in 2012, the last year for which figures are available, bullet trains carried 3.35 million people.

The link to İstanbul, scheduled to come into service in February or March of next year according to Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Binali Yıldırım, is expected to increase these numbers even further, but ongoing projects within İstanbul mean this figure may not be as high as hoped for. Indeed, the bullet trains will not be making their way into the heart of İstanbul but will come to a halt in Pendik, about 25 kilometers southeast of Haydarpaşa, the former terminus on the Asian side of the city. This is because the Marmaray project, the first stage of which opened on Oct. 29 to much fanfare, involves the removal and upgrade of the old suburban train tracks that ran from Haydarpaşa down to Pendik, and onwards to Gebze.

The rest of the Marmaray project is expected to be completed in mid 2016, but until then passengers will need to use other modes of transport to take them to Pendik. This fact alone may make flights still the best option. A flight out of İstanbul Atatürk Airport to Ankara Esenboğa Airport takes approximately 50 minutes. A passenger leaving from Taksim Square, a central spot in İstanbul, needs 45 minutes on average to make it to the airport and another hour for check-in and boarding. Ankara Esenboğa is located one hour outside of downtown Ankara. This brings a typical flight between the two cities, transfers included, to around three hours.

The high-speed link between Ankara and Pendik will take three hours, according to Turkish media. Buses running between Taksim Square and Pendik take two hours, bringing the total journey time to over five hours. The train will, however, be competitive with flights leaving from İstanbul's Sabiha Gökçen Airport, itself located about eight kilometers from the future site of the Pendik train station.

For now, bus companies are not concerned. “I don't think the high-speed train line that will open will affect our sector negatively,” says Umut Kahraman, vice chairman of the Board of Directors of Metro Turizm, which serves cities throughout Turkey. He pointed to the fact that the new train line is simply one of many new projects Turkey has undertaken in recent years. “Very serious work has been carried out over the last 10 years concerning air and sea travel, but despite all this, our ridership has increased by 22 million.”

Kahraman agreed that the train's final stop being in Pendik will turn away some passengers. “Millions of people live on İstanbul's European side, and I don't think they'll choose to take the high-speed train,” he said. Nonetheless, he was optimistic about the development. “We consider diversity in transportation options a gain, and I think this will serve to get people to travel more,” he said. The multiple options will make it easier to meet the high demand usually seen during national and religious holidays.

As for the price of train tickets, Turkish media have reported that the likely price will be between TL 70-80. This would make the train option more expensive than taking the bus, but more affordable than flying between İstanbul and Ankara. It remains to be seen whether this price figure will increase or not, but Kahraman considers it a “promotional fare intended to introduce the new line.” He does not see much difference in bus fares. “Our prices will definitely not be affected,” he said, adding, “But I would like to stress once again that having more options when it comes to transportation makes us happy, as getting people out there and traveling is very important to us.”

Frequent travelers have mixed views on the matter. Tolga İnan, a businessman who lives on the European half of the city, is reluctant. “As someone with a family who lives on the European side of İstanbul, it wouldn't be easy for me to use the train because it would take me at least one-and-a-half hours to get to the train. So instead of going from here to Pendik, I'd rather take the plane or bus [to Ankara]. And comparing ticket prices, it's more economical to take the bus. I also don't know where the train station in Ankara is located,” he says.

Cengiz Demir, a teacher who lives on the Asian side of İstanbul, says he'll give the train a try. “Well, using the train to go to Ankara has its advantages. And I don't think it's too expensive. If I were to take the bus, I'd end up paying almost the same. I'm sure the train would be much more comfortable than the bus,” he says.

He echoes Kahraman's optimism, saying, “At the end of the day, having many transport options to choose from is good for Turkey.” 

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