Congested Istanbul opens new subway system

Safety a major concern after killer earthquake

September 17, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ISTANBUL, Turkey - When the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamit II opened the first subway here 125 years ago, some of his devoutly religious subjects refused to use it because they feared going underground before they died.

Yesterday, with the opening of the city's first new subway since then, the anxieties were rooted in a more mundane concern.

Little more than a year ago, the region was rocked by a devastating earthquake that killed at least 17,000 people. Smaller quakes have occurred frequently since that time, and inhabitants of the city's apartment buildings often flee their homes at the slightest tremor.

"If you are up above ground or down below, the earthquake will get you anyway if it's your time," said Osman Canturk, 40, as he watched Saturday's festivities with his three children. "If you are a person with faith, you are not afraid. So I'll be happy to go on this subway."

Most of the thousands of people who turned out for an afternoon of entertainment and speeches seemed equally enthusiastic about a chance to ride the shiny new subway, with its French-built cars and mosaic-lined marble entrances.

Mayor Ali Mufit Gurtuna, who was joined in the grandstand with officials from Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and France, praised the subway system as a symbol of Istanbul's dynamism, calling it the most modern in the world.

The new subway is certainly far more advanced than the Tunel, one of the first underground railways.

The Tunel, across the Golden Horn - the arm of the Bosporus that forms Istanbul's harbor - from the Sultanahmet, or old town, is a single line funicular railway that originally used horse-drawn carriages to haul people 600 yards up a hill from the Galata Tower to Taksim Square in the Beyoglu district, the heart of modern Istanbul. The horses were replaced with electricity long ago, and the carriages in that tunnel still carry about 4 million passengers a year.

Henry Gavan, a French engineer, conceived the idea of the funicular after he got tired of walking up the hill.

It took him three years to persuade the sultan to let him begin the tunnel and another three years to finish work. At the time, only London and New York had subways.

When the tunnel opened, the local imam, or religious leader, cautioned people against going underground, saying it was inappropriate for good Muslims. As a result, for its first two weeks, the subway earned money by transporting animals instead of people. The imam then relented and blessed the subway.

Religion was absent from the ceremonies marking the opening of the new subway, a reflection of the strictly secular nature of today's Turkey.

The subway is part of an effort to relieve traffic congestion, which has become a serious problem as Istanbul has grown to a city of 12 million. The city has a limited light rail system and ferries that ply the crowded Bosporus.

The first phase of the new subway is nearly 5 miles long and connects two of the city's busiest districts. The line begins in Taksim Square, a major hub for commuter buses arriving in the city, and ends in Levent, a residential neighborhood that is fast becoming a leading business district.

This initial phase took eight years to complete and cost $631 million. The project ended up about 20 percent over budget. Authorities with the city's technical affairs directorate said the extra expense is due in part to added engineering safeguards to protect the subway from earthquakes. They said the line was built to withstand a temblor as powerful as magnitude 9.

The ride is swift and smooth, covering four stops in 12 minutes. A one-way ticket costs about 45 cents. Eventually the subway will have the capacity for 70,000 passengers an hour.

The system will operate 24 hours a day and security will be tight, with 200 plainclothes officers on duty.

The next phase, scheduled for completion in two years, will go in the opposite direction, beneath the Golden Horn to link Taksim Square with Yenikapi. The second line has raised concerns because it will burrow beneath the peninsula that is home to the city's most historic monuments, including Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia.

"Maximum care must be taken to preserve underground treasures of this city," said Bulent Tuna of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects. "How they will handle this delicate area, we don't know."

Work also began in February to link Taksim Square with the new Ataturk Airport on the outskirts of the city.

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