Ankara-Istanbul train route rushed into 2014 opening despite safety risks - report

The Turkish government rushed to completion a high speed train route between Istanbul and Ankara ahead of crucial presidential elections in July 2014, news site Duvar reported on Thursday.

Ahead of a grand opening ceremony in early 2014, top European Union officials including Johannes Hann, in charge of the department helping to finance the project, had warned there were safety risks in beginning commercial train service early. EU officials declined to attend the opening on July 25, 2014.

On Dec. 13, 2018, a train crashed on the route, killing nine people and injuring 47 others. Experts said the lack of an automated signaling system for trains led in large part to the crash. A top union said the government ignored their previous claims about the need for automated signals.

The lack of an automated system — the trains are instead directed by human directions — has meant much fewer trains run everyday, Duvar wrote. When the project was pitched, the vision was to run 100 trains everyday between Istanbul and Ankara. In reality, only eight trains make the route today.

In addition, the cost to run the trains for each passenger is around 500 Turkish liras (96 U.S. dollars), but tickets are only 80 liras (15 U.S. dollars).

With just 3,200 passengers riding the route each day, “the high speed train that was supposed to compete with airlines is not even able to compete against bus companies,” Duvar wrote.

Experts say that the 4.5 billion euro project should have been equipped with an automation system. The experts pan the system for not only being a financial failure but also unsafe for passengers, Duvar wrote.

Experts also call into question whether the route can be called “high speed.” On some parts of the route, trains run on tracks so old that speeds need to be reduced to 100 km an hour. “Even though it meets none of the international criteria, the government claims it has opened 213 km of high speed train tracks,” Duvar wrote.

Analysis by EU Commission experts on the Köseköy-Gebze section of the Ankara-Istanbul High Speed Line Project addressed clear and repeated concerns to the Turkish authorities about essential technical and operational safety issues needed to be addressed before the 2014 inauguration of the line, the EU Commission Spokesperson told Ahval News.

Noting that the Commission had, at the time, notably requested the Turkish authorities to assure that any commercial operations on the Ankara-Istanbul railway would start only once the project was complete according to approved design, the service said it stressed that this was necessary to ‘’ensure the safety of passengers, citizens and workers at the site.‘’

We communicated our findings and concerns to the Turkish authorities via the EU Delegation in Turkey as well as directly from headquarters. Letters were sent by the EU Delegation in Ankara on 17 March 2014 and 9 July 2014, and a joint letter from Commissioners Johannes Hahn and Štefan Füle (at the time responsible for Regional Policy and Enlargement respectively) was sent on 22 July 2014 to the Turkish Minister of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communication (MoTMC).

Commissioner Violeta Bulc is set to meet with the Turkish Minister of Transport Mehmet Cahit Turan on Tuesday, when the pair will discuss issues in all areas of cooperation including in the field of transport safety.