ISTANBUL: Turkey opened the world’s first underwater rail link between two continents on Tuesday, connecting Asia and Europe and allowing Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to realise a project dreamt up by Ottoman sultans more than a century ago.

The engineering feat spans 13 km (8 miles) to link Europe with Asia some 60 metres below the Bosphorus Strait. Called the Marmaray, it will carry subway commuters in Europe's biggest city and eventually serve high-speed and freight trains.

“Today we are realising the dreams of 150 years ago, uniting the two continents and the people of these two continents,” Mr Erdogan said at the opening, which coincides with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic.

The 5.5 billion lira ($2.8 billion) tunnel is one of Mr Erdogan's “mega projects”, an unprecedented building spree designed to change the face of Turkey.

They include a 50-km canal to rival the Suez that would render half of Istanbul an island, an airport that will be the world's busiest and a giant mosque atop an Istanbul hill.

Atomic power stations are on the drawing table. A third bridge over the Bosphorus, whose construction has already is under way.

SULTANS PROJECT

Mr Erdogan has called the Marmaray the project of the century and says it fulfils an age-old “dream of our ancestors”.

Plans for a rail tunnel below the Bosphorus date to at least 1891, when Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid, a patron of public works whom Mr Erdogan frequently evokes, had French engineers draft a submerged tunnel on columns that was never built.

Today, the gleaming Marmaray is an immersed tube set in the seabed built by Japan’s Taisei Corp with Turkish partners Nurol and Gama. The bulk of financing came from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation.

“Japan and Turkey are the two wings of Asia. Let us dream together of a high-speed train departing from Tokyo, passing through Istanbul and arriving in London,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who attended the historic opening ceremony.

Turkey plans to spend $250 billion on roads, energy and IT infrastructure alone over the next decade.

But Transport Minister Binali Yildirim dismissed the concerns about financing as mere envy.

“Half of the world is at war, the other half is in an economic slowdown, while Turkey is carrying out its big projects,” he said. “There's no need for this jealousy.”

Mr Yildirim described the Marmaray as the “safest structure in Istanbul,” its free-floating structure designed to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 9. Interlocking floodgates would seal off each section.

The Marmaray will reduce car traffic by 20 per cent in Istanbul when it eventually carries 1.5 million people a day.

Construction of the tunnel on the European side yielded a Byzantine port with more than 13 shipwrecks and thousands of other relics that date back as far as 8,500 years.

The government will open an “archaeological park” at the Yenikapi subway station to showcase relics. Station walls are decorated in a Hellenic theme with amphoras and galleons.

“Had it been up to the archaeologists, this project would have never finished,” Mr Yildirim said.—Reuters

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