Turkey developing inter-city and national rail connections to improve transportation network

Taking the train to Ankara from Istanbul used to be a leisurely affair. After a snack at Gar Lokantası, the blue-tiled restaurant inside Haydarpa şa station that was built by German engineers in 1872 and once served as the terminus for the Baghdad-Istanbul Railway, travellers boarded the train as the sun set. A clattering eight hours later, the train crawled into the capital’s main station. Now a high-speed link changes it all. Turkey has become Europe’s ninth country and the world’s 14th to operate a high-speed train network. The Turkish State Railways’ (TCDD) project slashed the journey time to three hours and 45 minutes as speeds reached 250 km per hour, making rail a viable rival to flying and the popular, inexpensive buses that now dominate inter-city travel. The government expects 78% of people traveling between Turkey’s two biggest cities to opt for rail from the current 10%.

As suitable as railway between Turkey’s political capital and cultural capital may seem, the path to linking them has been marked with challenges. Mountainous terrain – which required erecting 33 bridges and viaducts and boring 39 tunnels – added to costs and construction time. The current incarnation followed a fatal false start in 2004, when a fast train between Istanbul and Ankara using the decades-old existing tracks derailed, killing 41 people.

New Tracks

Since then, the railway has been overhauled and high-speed-appropriate tracks have been laid after construction began in October 2008. A section of track between Ankara and the north-west city of Eski ş ehir opened in 2009, while a line has been in operation between Ankara and Konya to the south since 2011. These routes saw almost 4.5m passengers in 2013. The rolling stock includes 11 trains made by Spain’s CAF and an additional seven Siemens’ Velaro trains. In August 2014, following a series of delays due to technical issues, the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed line began operations. It was originally scheduled to open at the same time as the cross-continental Marmaray rail link in Istanbul in October 2013. Eventually, it will connect with the Marmaray, which is currently serving metro travellers, providing an unbroken rail link between Europe and Asia Minor for the first time. The government also announced in late 2014 that the following year would see a call for tenders for a new line between the two cities that would reduce travel time even further, from the current three hours and 45 minutes to around one hour.

Although Turkey was an integral part of a route stretching from Europe to the Middle East, its railways have suffered from underinvestment since the 1950s. The US promoted imports of American cars and road-building as part of the Marshall Plan, a major aid programme to Turkey after the Second World War. But Europe’s influence is now more apparent in the renewed interest in rail. In 2003 authorities began implementing a plan to modernise the TCDD and ensure Turkish laws on rail transport complied with EU standards, part of the country’s broader project to join the bloc. The EU offered several loans in recent years for railway projects, including nearly €1bn worth of facilities for the Ankara-Istanbul high-speed line.

Overall, Turkey will invest $45bn in its rail network by the 100th anniversary of the republic in 2023, Lü tfi Elvan, the transport minister, has said. The investment will include 10,000 km of high-speed track and another 4000 km of conventional track, connecting 15 cities that include Afyon, Izmir, Bursa, Erzincan and Sivas. The length of track will increase to 26,000 km from the current 10,984 km, including 10,000 km of high-speed and 4000 km of conventional track. Improved rail links will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the economy, especially for eastern regions. “Better rail connections will open up areas in eastern Turkey to increased trade, as rail freight from the area is much more cost effective than road transport given very high petrol rates in Turkey,” said Ozan Önder, managing director at global logistics firm DSV Turkey.


Turkey has recently opened the state-controlled rail industry to private operators to help it meet targets for rail expansion and upgrades. The Rail System Liberalisation Law, passed by parliament in 2013, overhauls the network by splitting the state operator into two firms and opening the sector to private operators. The law adheres to the British model, keeping control of the tracks with the TCDD, while granting access rights to privateers for up to 49 years. A new operating company, Turktren, will handle passenger and freight services. A rail regulator was set up in 2012. Liberalisation will increase competition and service quality, Cavit U ğ ur, head of the Association of International Forwarding and Logistics Service Providers, told trade magazine Railway Pro.

Initially, private firms will only be allowed to operate freight services, with passenger services permitted by 2018. Public and private entities can receive licences to build their own railway infrastructures for which they could become operators of both the infrastructure and transport services, according to the legislation. Industry watchers expect private operators will be allowed to operate on the Ankara-Eski hir and Ankara-Konya lines. Major European rail engineers and operators, like Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, SNCF and Thales from France, European group Thalys, Japan’s Mitsubishi and Hyundai Rotem from Korea have set sights to Turkey. “There is much room for increased development of the rail transport sector. Less than 1% of cargo is currently transported by rail compared to a 20%-40% average in other countries. The recent privatisation of the sector is a step in the right direction,” Tom Gronnegaard Knudsen, a regional managing director for MAERSK Line, told OBG.

International Links

Rail links with neighbouring countries are essential for boosting trade ties. The TCDD has said reviving Turkey’s historic trade route between Asia and Europe with railroads would boost trade by $75bn a year. “Train transport is improving but has not kept pace with demand; the population is rising and more investment is needed. Turkey should try to collaborate with other countries in the sector, like Russia,” said Imran Okumu ş , general manager of Ulusoy and Varan Bus Group.

A railway connection between the north-eastern city of Kars and Azerbaijani capital of Baku via Georgia’s Tbilisi will open in 2015. The expected annual volume on the $600m line is 50,000 containers. The link will offer Caucasian and Central Asian nations an east-west corridor free of Russian control for the first time. Other international projects include an agreement between Lithuanian Railways and the TCDD. Inter-modal trains traveling through Belarus and Ukraine will arrive at Ukraine’s Odessa port. There, containers will be shipped to Turkish marine ports where the TCDD will distribute to Turkey and the Middle East, according to the journal Rail Turkey.

In the City

Rail is playing a bigger role in the lives of urban commuters, most of whom rely on public transport due to low car ownership rates. In Ankara and Istanbul, about 60% of residents use some form of public transport, according to Ela Babalık-Sutcliffe, a professor at the Department of City and Regional Planning at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University. In 2013 the government announced plans to expand Istanbul’s underground, increasing the length of routes to 400 km from 141 km and annual capacity to 7m passengers in 2016, then 11m by 2019. The Yenikapı extension of the metro, which opened in January 2014, is the first step in that direction. The second branch of the M1 line opened in June 2013, connecting Esenler. Above ground, Istanbul’s tram and rail lines transported an average of 1.6m people per day in 2014.

In the capital Ankara, the long-awaited 15-km Batıkent-Sincan metro line opened in December 2013, finishing 13 years after it was started. The Kızı laypleted in March 2014. 2015 should also see the opening of Tando ğ an-Keçiören line, which has taken two decades to complete. The slow pace of building these lines coincided with major investments in road infrastructure, contributing to a sharp jump in car-usage rate, which Babalık-Sutcliffe said is 35% today, compared to less than 20% in 1997.

In Bursa, Turkey’s fourth-largest city, a 6.5-km tram line opened in October 2013. Spanish company COMSA designed, built and electrified the circular line for €8m. Its 12 stops include two interchanges with the city’s light metro, with a fleet of 14 trains built by Turkish coach builder Durmaray and a bogey constructed by Siemens. COMSA was chosen again by the Gaziantep municipality in south-eastern Turkey for a €20m tram line, which included infrastructure, tracks, signals and power supply for a 6.5-km double track with eight stops. “Turkey still has major potential in terms of sustainable urban transport, because car ownership and usage are still relatively low in the cities. Public transportation use is high, due to the number of ‘captive riders’ who don’t have other vehicles,” Babalik-Sutcliffe told OBG. “But the lack of quality in public transport and local policymakers making cars the priority has created a serious risk for the trend. Already the use of public transport is on the decline.”