For its 90th birthday, the Turkish state Tuesday gave itself and its citizens a fine present: a brand-new commuter rail tunnel that runs under the Bosphorus and links Istanbul's European and Asian sides.
The Marmaray tunnel, as it is called, is a historic achievement certainly worth celebrating. First dreamed up some 120 years ago by Sultan Abdulhamid, the underwater Bosphorus crossing that just opened is the world's deepest immersed tunnel, a technologically sophisticated $2.8 project that serves as a potent symbol for both Istanbul's and Turkey's dynamic growth.
For the ruling Justice and Development Party and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the tunnel's opening was an opportunity to once again assert themselves as the succesful builders of a new and more advanced Turkey, while at the same time describing the Marmaray project's significance in rather grandiose terms.
At the tunnel's opening ceremony in Istanbul's Uskudar neighborhood, for example, Erdogan said Marmaray "is not a project only for Istanbul Marmaray is a project for whole humanity." Other Turkish officials suggested the tunnel is the linchpin of a "New Silk Road" that would, as signs at the opening ceremony promised, connect "Peking with London." (Never mind that one can already travel from China to England by train, using existing tracks that go through Russia.)
The reality is a little less dramatic. For now, the new tunnel will strictly be used to service a new commuter train line and it's not clear when freight trains will actually be able to run on the Marmaray's tracks. So, while the tunnel is an impressive technological accomplishment and does link two continents, it is no more a gift to humanity than are the PATH tunnels running the Hudson River that bring bleary-eyed commuters from New Jersey into Manhattan every morning. While some western news organizations got a bit carried away in their reporting about the tunnel's significance, China's Xinhua ran what was probably the most accurate and sober headline about the project: "Turkey launches undersea commuter train."
And while the Marmaray opening was a chance for Erdogan to show off the first of several "mega projects" for Istanbul -- a third bridge over the Bosphorus is being built, while another airport and a canal that would bypass the straits are planned -- not everything went according to script for the opening of the tunnel of hype. One of the main questions surrounding the project was the issue of safety (the tunnel goes through a particularly active seismic zone) and whether its opening had been rushed to meet the Oct. 29 Republic Day holiday deadline. Reports the New York Times:
“The part that is in service is very limited,” a city planner, Tayfun Kahraman, told Agence France-Presse. “We are wondering why this inauguration is happening so soon.”
The biggest issues seem to be that the tunnel still lacks an electronic security system and that it could flood. “It would be murder to open it under these conditions,” said Suleyman Solmaz, a senior figure at the Chamber of Architects and Engineers, adding that a project engineer told him he would not dare ride through the tunnel until those issues were addressed.
The new commuter line's rollout was also marred by glitches during its first day of operation, which led to service being interrupted twice, forcing passengers to finish their trip through the new tunnel on foot.
The Erdogan government probably hoped to use the opening of the Marmaray as a way of focusing on its achievements and moving past the trouble of this past summer's protests in Istanbul and the bad image it got from the way it handled them, but the spirit of Gezi wasn't very far from the Marmaray celebrations. While the tunnel was being opened in Uskudar, across the Bosphorus, in the area around Taksim Square, the government felt obliged to deploy a large contingent of riot police in order to prevent any possible demonstrations. And on social media, people were quick to point out that it took less than a day for Gezi-related graffiti to be posted on the walls of the brand new tunnel.
Still, considering what the its rival parties were doing on the day of the Marmaray tunnel's opening, the AKP probably still has little to worry about. While Erdogan and other officials were inaugurating the tunnel and proclaiming it as part of their vision for Turkey's 100th birthday in 2023, the opposition was busy looking backwards and fighting yesterday's battles. On Republic Day, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was caught up in an internal debate about whether the party would fight to keep a group of AKP legislators from entering parliament with their headscarfs on (which they did today), while the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) was busy slamming the government for posthumously awarding a prize to a Kurdish singer who had long ago been exiled for his political views.
Thanks to the state of the opposition, the Erdogan government will likely be able to derive maximum benefit from the Marmaray's opening, despite the glitches and concerns. The new tunnel's arrival may not herald the opening of a new Silk Road, but it's yet another success that paves the way for the AKP's continued political dominance.