Turkey builds massive high-speed railway to mark centennial anniversary


For Ahmet Cankoyu, a freshman with a university in Ankara, the high-speed rail linking the Turkish capital with the country’s most populous city of Istanbul is a boon that lifts him out of a dilemma.

The problem of accommodation started to haunt the 19-year-old and his family when he was enrolled into Hacettepe University in Ankara last year, his favorite among other options, as he could not afford the expensive apartments in the city.

For him, it was not easy to find roommates, as close friends were enrolled into other parts of the country, or live with his uncle’s family of four in a small apartment, or reside in a private or state-run dormitory that is either costly or uncomfortable.

Driven to a dilemma, Cankoyu and his family turned to the high-speed line that also links Eskisehir, his hometown, and it turns out to be the very best option for them.

Cankoyu pays only 48 Turkish lira, or about 13 U.S. dollars, for a round trip under a special discount for the youth, and it takes just one and half an hours to finish one-way trip.

“Now I am traveling between Eskisehir and Ankara 3 days a week as I managed to squeeze my classes into three days,” he said. “This is the best option.”

As a matter of fact, the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed rail has benefited many others over the years since its operation, as trains running on the line are making travelers feel fast, comfortable, secure and affordable.

Like Cankoyu, many in Eskisehir have opted to travel to the capital on this line, making the number of passengers skyrocket to 72 percent from a meagre 8 percent, according to figures provided by the State Railways of the Turkish Republic, or TCDD.

The Ankara-Eskisehir line was Turkey’s first high-speed rail that went into operation on March 13, 2009, and the line was successfully extended to Istanbul on July 25, 2014 at a total length of 533 kilometers.

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China Railway Construction Corporation and China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation, in partnership with two Turkish companies, built a 158-km-long line of the second phase of the project in between the Inonu-Vezirhan and Vezirhan-Kosekoy sections.

The express line cuts the travel time to a great extent, with that from Ankara to Istanbul shortened to 4 hours from 7 to 9 hours on a conventional train.

Between March 13, 2009 and April 27, 2017, 32 million passengers, or about half of Turkey’s population of 79.814 million, had traveled on the Ankara-Istanbul line, and some 19,000 passengers are on the trains now each day, an increase of 18 percent over the previous year, TCDD data show.

“High-speed train speeds up the Turkish economy,” said Ramazan Ipek, a fellow in his late 20s who works at a bistro on a high-speed train, known as HST in Turkey. “It provides job opportunities for young Turkish people who are desperately looking for jobs.”

The bistro hires seven others. “That means eight people earn their bread in that specific bistro,” noted Ipek. “Everyone appreciates the services provided by the HST.”

According to the TCDD, the high-speed rail service has brought “dynamism” to the economic, social and cultural lives in the cities along the line, as it is making these cities each other’s “suburbs” by means of reducing the travel time, increasing the demand for travel and making the cities “attractive spots” for both domestic and foreign investors.

“Since the HST entered into our lives I don’t use any other transportation,” said Ayfer Eroglu, a-45-year-old sales manager living in Istanbul who visits her parents in Ankara over the weekends. “It is comfortable, free of traffic and fast.”

In fact, there are 216 buses, 80 flights from different airlines and 14 high-speed trains shuttling each day between the two most populous cities in Turkey, according to the TCDD.

It is not easy, however, to shuttle between Istanbul and Ankara by air, as the airports are not at the centers of the cities and both traffic and security check are headaches for travelers.

Tamer Sen, a 60-year-old teacher working with Eskisehir University, was aboard the high-speed train again just days ago for a reunion dinner with schoolmates in Ankara. “If there is no HST, I wouldn’t attend the dinner at all,” he said.

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In his view, the HST technology came to Turkey “very late,” “We should have had this opportunity years and years ago.”

Turkey plans to build 3500-km-long high-speed railway and 8500-km-long fast track by 2023, when the country marks its centennial anniversary, said the TCDD.

The railway authority said 150 billion Turkish lira, or 42 billion U.S. dollars, will be spent to expand the network from the current 12,532 km to 25,000 km by 2023 and further to 31,000 km by 2035.

China boasts the longest high-speed rail system in the world and is making efforts with other countries to promote the connectivity of the Asian, European and African continents and their adjacent seas under the Belt and Road Initiative proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Recognizing China as the fastest-growing country in developing high-speed rail and the leader in the world in terms of its length of high-speed line, the TCDD said, “It is always possible to cooperate with China in the construction of the railway lines that are planned.”

Under its Middle Corridor plan, Turkey is joining hands with Georgia and Azerbaijan in building a rail linking their cities of Kars, Tbilisi and Baku, a project that is expected to be completed by early summer this year.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars line is expected as well to increase the flow of containers and other types of cargo from Asia to Europe, as a cargo from China will be able to reach Europe in 15 days, according to Ahmet Arslan, Turkey’s minister of transport, maritime and communications.

“By opening our Kars-Tbilisi-Baku line this year, we will revive the historical Silk Road,” stated the TCDD. “The Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway will further strengthen our relations with China as well as with the Turkic states in Central Asia.”

The new Silk Road railway project under the Belt and Road Initiative will provide the opportunity for the regional countries along the route to develop and strengthen their relationships in every areas, the Turkish railway authority opined.

The successful completion of the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed rail project has increased the confidence of the countries and generated opportunities for Chinese companies to win the tenders of other infrastructure projects in Turkey, observed Dr. Ozlem Zerrin Keyvan, advisor on Asia Pacific Studies with the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies.

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Referring to the fact that the two countries have been strategic partners since 2010, she said China is trying to revive the Silk Road while developing relations with Turkey, and Turkey needs new investments and commercial opportunities for its rapidly-growing economy that in turn will enable the country to be a corridor of transport and energy.

“China’s involvement in high-speed rail and rail network projects will lead to an acceleration in the ongoing commercial ties,” she remarked.

Beijing and Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding on harmonizing their Belt and Road and Middle Corridor initiatives in November 2015, under which the two sides have been discussing cooperation on key projects, including a high-speed rail linking Kars in Turkey’s east and Edirne in the west.

Dr. Baris Adibelli, an assistant professor with Turkey’s Dumlupinar University, praised China for pursuing an equality policy on partnerships with developing countries by means of supporting technology transfer, supplying know-how, using qualified materials and workmanship and offering reasonable costs.

“That is why Turkey chose China as a partner in her infrastructure project,” he said.

Noting that Westernization and industrialization have been the main course in Turkey’s development since its founding in 1923, he stressed that “The high-speed train project in Turkey should not be seen as a simple infrastructure project.”

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“In that sense, for Turkey doing this prestigious project with China has a deep strategic meaning beyond trade or economic gains,” said the scholar, who authored a book on “Turkey-China Relations from Ottoman Period.”

“Although they are geographically distant from each other, both countries will recognize each other with such prestigious projects without prejudice,” he added. “So that, the economic relations will become common ground for political cooperation.”