The first ever underwater railway tunnel to link two continents was opened in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Marmaray tunnel, which links Europe and Asia was opened on the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic and was attended by President Gul, Prime Minister Erdogan and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe among many other dignitaries.
President Abdullah Gul thanked everyone who made the completion of the Marmaray project possible.
“It is a giant engineering project. We will all be proud of this project and launch new ones,” he said.
The tunnel, which was originally conceived by an Ottoman sultan over 150 years ago, is designed to ease Istanbul’s heavy traffic and reduce travel time between the two sides of the Bosporus to four minutes. The Marmaray will carry 75,000 passengers per hour and around 1 million passengers per day.
The project is headed by a Turkish/Japanese consortium. Japan has invested USD1bn of the USD4bn (£3.4bn) total cost of the project, which name derives from a combination of the nearby Sea of Marmara with “ray”, the Turkish word for rail.
The Turkish government is hoping that the new rail tunnel under the Bosphorus will develop into a major trading route. Theoretically, one day, it could be possible to travel from London to Beijing via Istanbul by train.
Currently, Istanbul, one of the world’s largest cities and with a population of around 16 million people, is served by two bridges. Two million commuters cross the Bosphorus every day which creates huge congestion problems.
The Marmaray project will upgrade existing suburban train lines to create a direct link joining the southern part of the city across the Bosphorus Strait.
However, the tunnel, has not been without its critics following technical problems in its construction.
Istanbul mayor Kadir Topbas, who was also present at the ceremony had tried to assure critics over safety concerns about the Marmaray undersea tunnel project ahead of its inauguration, saying that all potential risks had been addressed in detail.
“All possibilities have been taken into consideration in all seriousness,” the mayor said. “These tests take every possibility into account. All hitches have been repaired. We’re informed that there are no problems now.”
The mayor’s remarks came a few hours after a press meeting organised by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers (TMMOB) aimed at warning the authorities and the public about the potential risks of the project, which was partly opened on Tuesday.
In the main, the tunnel’s ability to withstand an earthquake has been questioned, as the Marmara region is a major earthquake zone.
The project, which includes a 1.4-kilometer immersed tube tunnel – the deepest of its kind in the world at 60 meters – has been attacked for being constructed hastily without taking such risks into consideration.
Suleyman Solmaz, a senior TMMOB representative, pointed to the potential weaknesses of the tunnel, saying “it would be murder to open it under these conditions.”
Solmaz quoted an engineer who worked for eight years on the project, Riza Behcet Akca, as saying, “I wouldn’t get in [the Marmaray] and nobody should.”
He said the tubes used for the undersea passage were linked flexibly and in the event of any rupture in these connections the tunnel would be filled with water. “No measures have been taken against this or any other scenario,” Solmaz said.
He also claimed that the first stage of the tunnel that was opened on Tuesday, lacks an electronic security system. “The tube that will be opened now doesn’t have a security centre,” he said, adding that although it has been claimed that an additional 10 million euro investment will be made, this investment would not solve such a problem.
Attempting to answer these concerns, last week Transport Minister Binali Yildirim had said the design of the tunnel would make it resistant to an earthquake exceeding 9.0 in magnitude and would be “the safest place in Istanbul.”
Prime Minister Erdogan said that everyone in Turkey, whether they like his government or not, should be proud of this project.
The TL 5.5 billion (USD2.8 billion) tunnel is one of Erdogan’s “mega projects,” part of an unprecedented building spree designed to change the face of Turkey.