Europe-Asia rail connection at Istanbul promises to be great…

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A centuries-old dream fulfilled. A vital link between east and west. A new land bridge between Asia and Europe.

Turkey‘s new Marmaray tunnel under the Bosporus lends itself to superlatives. And all of them are justified. For starters, the tunnel is epochal, being history’s first permanent rail link at this storied frontier.

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Moreover, the tunnel is an engineering marvel. Not only is it long — 8.5 miles — it’s also deep, running almost 200 feet beneath the seabed. Not surprisingly, Marmaray cost a bundle — US$ billion, to be precise.

Initially, the tunnel, opened by Turkish State Railways, will handle commuter traffic, whisking up to 75,000 passengers an hour between East and West Istanbul. But it will also be expanded to handle long-distance passenger trains, becoming the first standard-gauge rail link between Europe and Asia.

But will it really be a seamless connection? Maybe. But first, some other links will also have to be forged. For one thing, Turkey, as well as interested parties, will have to complete the rail connection between Kars, on the country’s eastern frontier, and Achalkalaki in Georgia.

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Then, a route will have to be set aside between Achalkalaki and Beijing, using the Trans-Siberian Railway and, after that, the Trans-Mongolian line through Ulan Bator to China.

Moreover, through traffic will be hobbled by differences in track gauges between China, Russia and Turkey. In both China and Turkey, railways, like those in the rest of Europe except Spain, are standard gauge. But in Russia, Georgia and Mongolia, they’re broad gauge.

So, freight cars rolling from, say, Beijing, to Paris will have to be changed: from standard to broad gauge wheels and back to standard ones — an expensive and time-consuming process.

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Changing the wheels from Mongolian to Chinese gauge at the border.

Moreover, Central Asia, through which the route must pass, is chronically unstable, racked as it is by civil war, as well as tribal and ethnic violence.

Then, too, such a route will have to compete with Russia’s own plan to move cargo from China and the Far East to Europe via the Trans-Siberian. So, will the new Marmaray railway tunnel live up to its billing? Stay tuned!

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