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Long dreamed of rail link between Europe and Asia opens in Istanbul

After a century and a half of discussion and eight years of construction, Turkey on Tuesday opened the first rail tunnel under the Bosporus Strait, establishing a direct link between Europe and Asia and opening the possibility of train travel between London and Beijing.

But the tunnel and four stations, built with a Japanese development loan, ran up against criticism from Turkish engineers and architects, who said the flexible joints linking the concrete tunnel tubes could leak, and the structure would be at risk in an earthquake. Turkey’s transportation minister responded that it was the safest place in Istanbul.

The Marmaray project, as it’s known, is intended to ease traffic congestion in this sprawling city of 13.8 million by creating a rail link between the two continents and anchoring a new 37-mile subway line. The new tunnel has the capacity of 75,000 passengers per hour, or more than a million a day, and the overall project is expected to cost $8 billion when it is completed in two years.

Ottoman Sultan Abdulmedjid first proposed construction of a tunnel in 1860, but no plans were drawn up until the late 19th century and construction was never begun.

The tunnel and subway line are among the greatest public works project that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought to completion. At Tuesday’s opening ceremony for what he called the “project of the century,” he pledged to proceed with his other mega-projects: a third bridge across the Bosporus, the world’s biggest airport and a second tunnel to carry cars.

He’s also proposed building a canal between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, to remove heavy shipping from the Bosporus.

The inauguration of the Marmaray project, held on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish republic, inspired new dreams of links between Europe and Asia. Visiting Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta said the project put Istanbul at “the center of the world again.” And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed a high-speed train to run from Tokyo to London. “Tokyo, Beijing, London, Uskudar,” Erdogan responded, referring to Istanbul’s Asian port, which now has a new rail and subway station. “Can it be? It can.”

Erdogan and his guests rode the first train from Uskudar to Yenikapi on the European side. The trip should take just four minutes, a fraction of the time required for travel by ferry or by car across the picturesque strait.

Reporters who traveled aboard the second train experienced a slow and sometimes jerky ride through the tunnel, which is set 180 feet deep along the sea floor, one of the deepest railway tunnels on Earth.

Now there is a debate about whether the tunnel is safe.

On the eve of the project inauguration, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects called a news conference to declare that it wasn’t. Suleyman Solmaz, a senior official in the group, said that if there was a rupture in the flexible links between tunnel sections they would fill with water. “No measures have been taken against this or any other scenario,” he told reporters. He also noted that the tunnel lies just 12 miles from the Anatolian fault, an active earthquake zone that is expected to produce a major temblor in the coming years.

He said the group submitted an 11-point critique of the project to the Turkish government. “If you open Marmaray before these problems are solved, there will be a serious risk, do not open it. That would be murder,” he said.

Binali Yildrim, the minister of transportation, maritime affairs and communications, responded to the criticism that the project, a free-floating structure, had interlocking floodgates that can seal off each section, and the structure was designed to withstand a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. Marmaray, he said, was “the safest structure in Istanbul” in the event of a quake.

Construction began in 2005 and was expected to take four years, but it was delayed by discovery of ancient structures buried at what was to be the site of the Yenikapi station. Among them were the 4th century port of Theodosius and 37 well-preserved shipwrecks from the 5th to the 11th centuries. Among the shipwrecks were 15 galleys, small, fast ships built of light wood that rarely survived the centuries, according to Dr. Ufuk Kocabas of Istanbul University, an archeologist who directs the Yenikapi Shipwreck Project. He said many of the ships and a sampling of the 35,000 artifacts found during the project will eventually be put on display in a new museum of underwater archeology.