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After 150-year wait, Istanbul tunnel joins Europe and Asia 30 octobre 2013

Posted by Acturca in Istanbul, Turkey / Turquie.
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The Guardian (UK) Wednesday, October 30, 2013, p. 19

Constanze Letsch, Istanbul

$4bn Bosphorus project first dreamed up in 1860. Concerns over safety of tunnel in earthquake zone.
Alternately described as the lost link between Europe and Asia and the end of the city of Istanbul as we know it, the world’s deepest underwater railway tunnel was opened yesterday under the Bosphorus, connecting two continents by rail tunnel for the first time.

Almost a mile of the 8.5-mile tunnel between the European and Asian sides of Turkey’s largest city is immersed under 56 metres (184ft) of water.

A railway tunnel under the Bosphorus strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, was first suggested by the Ottoman sultan Abdulmejid in 1860.

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul determined to leave his mark on the city, opened the Marmaray tunnel more than four years after it was due to be completed. It is not yet fully operational.

The project was beset by long delays owing to archaeological excavations: the remains of a Byzantine shipping fleet, the largest discovered, were found at the main metro terminus in Yenikapi, prompting Erdogan to voice contempt that construction was held up because of « clay pots » and « other stuff ».

Japan invested $1bn of the $4bn (pounds 2.5bn) cost of the project. The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, attended yesterday’s opening ceremony.

Dubbed the « iron silk road » by the Turkish government, the Marmaray rail line would, Erdogan said, connect London to Beijing, reviving the ancient trade routes across Asia to Europe.

Engineers and urban planners, however, have voiced concern about the safety of the underwater section, with some describing it as a death trap.

Quoting a report by Riza Behcet, an engineer who has worked on the project for eight years, the Istanbul Chamber of Architects warned that the tunnel lacked an electronic warning system and the flexibly-linked parts of the immersed section would be prone to rupture and water leakage in the case of earthquakes.

Istanbul is above a seismic hotspot. Tectonic plates meet under the Sea of Marmara, putting the city at risk of a major earthquake within a generation.

According to Turkish media, Behcet warned he « would not get on the Marmaray metro line, and nobody else should either ».

The country’s transport minister, Binali Yildirim, countered such claims, saying the tunnel was « the safest place in Istanbul » and that the structure would withstand up to 9-magnitude quakes.

On Monday, the city’s mayor, Kadir Topbas, said all test drives had been completed successfully and « all possibilities have been taken into consideration in all seriousness ».

Other experts have criticised the government’s rush to open the project yesterday to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the modern Turkish republic.

« Serious answers need to be given to these serious allegations, » said Tayfun Kahraman, a board member of the Chamber of Urban Planners in Istanbul.

« There needs to be an independent assessment of the risks and security gaps in the Marmaray project, and the findings have to be made public. This cannot be brushed aside with a mere promise by the government. »

He conceded that the project – once its safety was guaranteed – was an important step towards easing the notorious congestion in a city of 15 million people. « We have always underlined that public transport needs to be taken off the road. In this sense, Marmaray supports this development in the right direction. »

The rail service will be capable of carrying 75,000 people an hour in either direction. According to government estimates, 1.5 million people will cross the strait every day on the Marmaray line.

The subway crossing will take four minutes, much faster than the ferries that criss-cross the Bosphorus.

Prof Murat Guvenc, head of the urban studies institute at Sehir University, Istanbul, worries that no research has been conducted into the socioeconomic impact of the new rail line.

« Marmaray is uniquely a technical project. We have no idea how it will affect the city and the people in it – if it will change life in the city for better or worse, » he said. « But we can be sure that the vulnerable residents of Istanbul will feel the impact more than the others. A mega-project like this will cause major rent increases and profiteering by some. »

Citing the lack of government control mechanisms in the property market, Guvenc said poorer residents and small businesses were likely to be priced out of neighbourhoods adjacent to the new metro line.

« Increased overall accessibility – access to transport, shopping, culture etc – will cause rents in formerly cheaper areas to rise quickly. It will substantially change the social strata of the city. With the opening of the Marmaray line, the Bosphorus strait will cease to be an obstacle. It means the end of Istanbul as we know it. »

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