A railway tunnel beneath the Bosphorus Strait has created a new link between the Asian and European shores of Istanbul. There are already two bridges over the strait, but the tunnel should make the journey faster.
Work on the tunnel started in 2004, but archaeological excavations delayed constructions. The underwater section of the tunnel runs less than mile. Overall, it stretches more than nine miles.
The BBC’s James Reynolds was one of the first people to travel inside the tunnel, and joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
For the first time in history, there is a tunnel connecting two continents: Europe and Asia. It opened this week in Turkey, underneath the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. It is called the Marmaray tunnel. The BBC's James Reynolds has been in the tunnel, and he is with us now from Istanbul. James, welcome.
JAMES REYNOLDS: Hello. I survived, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, what it is like in there?
REYNOLDS: Unfortunately, when you're in there, it feels like a normal tunnel, the kind that I've done - traveled hundreds of times on the London Underground. I've done that in Boston, in New York, as well. But you have to keep reminding yourself: You're 60 meters underground. Above you is the Bosphorus Strait, and that is pretty weird.
The one thing that does remind you of the rather unique journey you're doing is the map. It shows the route. But then it has this blue strip of water above the route, and that reminds you that you are, in fact, going under one of the most historic waterways in the world.
HOBSON: Well, and there is a bridge over that waterway. I've been on it before, and I sort of remember there being a sign that said welcome to Asia, or something, when you get halfway across it. But what is the goal of this? Is this to ease traffic congestion in Istanbul?
REYNOLDS: First of all, to ease traffic, and then to create a rival trading route to the existing routes between Western Europe and Asia. Essentially, the Turkish government wants this tunnel to be the nexus of a route which would connect traders in Shanghai with traders in London.
HOBSON: And I noticed that Japan is an investor. Do they want the traders to be able to go all the way across from London to Tokyo, or Beijing, at least?
REYNOLDS: Pretty much. I mentioned their thought is once they get to Shanghai, it's not all that far to get to Tokyo. I don't think there's any desire yet to try to build a tunnel to connect Japan and China. Maybe we'll have to have that conversation in a few centuries time. But for the moment, I think they want to make sure that Asia is even more accessible to Europe than before.
HOBSON: Well, tell us how this compares to other tunnels, because I notice that it is not as long, for example, under - the underwater section is not nearly as long as the Channel Tunnel, the Chunnel, that connects England and France. That's 23-and-a-half miles underwater. This one's just eight-tenths of a mile.
REYNOLDS: Yeah, that's right. The actual length underneath the water is about a mile or so from the Asian side to the European side. But, actually, the tunnel itself is about six or seven miles long, because, of course, it extends further beneath the Asian side and the European side of Istanbul. Of its type, engineers say that it's the deepest submerged tunnel in the world. But there's been a lot of controversy about it here.
When my colleagues and I spoke to ordinary people on the day that it opened, we said: Are you going to join the rush and get onboard? They said no. They were too scared. They were worried about the possibility of earthquakes. And even a very respected engineers' chamber association here in Istanbul has said that more work needs to be done to make sure that it can be protected from floods and earthquakes. So there is an uneasy atmosphere about it.
HOBSON: Well, and there have been some glitches already, right? Tell us about those.
REYNOLDS: First morning glitches. It had been working for, I'd say, a couple of hours or so. Then at 8 o'clock in the morning - meanwhile, one reporter was doing a segment from the tunnel - the power went out.
REYNOLDS: We're not entirely sure why. The railway people say that it went out because people were pressing the emergency button all the time. But clearly, if that's the explanation, then there is a worry about the degree to which the public could simply stop everything working if they keep on pressing the button. Power was restored after a couple of minutes, but not before people had to get out of the train and walk along one of the side routes in the tunnel.
The authorities say there's nothing to worry about, but engineers say a lot more needs to be done. There needs to be a proper, autonomous power supply for the railway system. There needs to be a proper control station. A lot more needs to be done.
HOBSON: And it's not as if everybody in Turkey was onboard with the idea of building this thing in the first place. I know this was sort of a pet project of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He's been a big supporter of this. But there were all these demonstrations that we heard about when there was another development project in Gezi Park. Tell us about the opposition to this.
REYNOLDS: Jeremy, you're right to link up that. Essentially, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been in power now for more than a decade, wants to try to transform the nature of Istanbul. His belief is he wants to make it a more modern city, and he wants to have a few landmark architectural projects to show the staging posts of that ambition. So he wants to build a new bridge across the Bosphorus, which would be the third bridge. He's thinking about a new airport. He's thinking even about a canal and, of course, this tunnel.
He was also thinking of transforming the park, Gezi Park in Taksim Square, which, of course, provoked those protests back in May and June. So, essentially, his ambition and - is part of what we're seeing both with the protests and with the tunnel. The opposition says he doesn't consult enough. He simply goes ahead, railroads through any dissent and tries to get things done his way. And that was why protests broke out earlier in the year.
There haven't been those mass protests about the tunnel at the moment. The only - supporters say they're quite happy with it. But, of course, those skeptics say they won't be taking it for the moment until they can be absolutely sure that it's safe.
HOBSON: Now, James, while we have you, I have to ask you, you took a train all the way - or a series of trains - from London to Beijing, took you a long time. Do you think that with this new tunnel you're going to be able to cut that journey down a fair bit?
REYNOLDS: Fascinating question. I did that journey, I'd say, in about 10 days with a few stops along the way. The experts say you could probably get that down a little bit. I went through Northern Europe, through Poland, Belarus, into the former Soviet Union and then Mongolia and China. If we were to get by Istanbul, I'd be going through lower countries of Central Asia. Why don't I try it one day, and then I'll get back to you?
HOBSON: We'll talk to you then. James Reynolds of the BBC in Istanbul. Thank you so much.
REYNOLDS: My pleasure, Jeremy. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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