Trams in the CBD and heavy rail across the Bosphorus – examples for Sydney

Recently I looked at what Sydney could learn from Istanbul’s electronic ticketing system, which is part of a much wider story about how the public transport in Turkey’s largest city is being transformed through a massive investment in public transport infrastructure to meet the needs of a city of over 13 million people.

Although they are very different cities and Istanbul dwarfs Sydney in population terms, there are similarities. Both share the physical challenges of being divided by large bodies of water and steep ridges – and both have responded in similar ways, for example, by making extensive use of ferries. Both also adopted tram networks partly to deal with the hilly terrain, only to rip these up in the fifties and sixties in favour of cars and buses.
Now, both are undergoing suburban expansion in suburbs away from the coast and beyond the reach of each city’s current public transport infrastructure, while experiencing redevelopment in some older waterside suburbs. Initially both cities responded by investing heavily in road infrastructure, but are now looking belatedly at retrofitting (at considerable expense) public transport systems to deal with congestion and high car dependency, including heavy rail, light rail and busways.

Ferry traffic and the tramway crossing Istanbul's Golden Horn

Ferry traffic and the tramway crossing Istanbul's Golden Horn

There are of course major differences, apart from population size. Istanbul’s Bosporus and Golden Horn represent a much bigger challenge than Sydney Harbour and so its ferry system is much more extensive. On the other hand, Sydney may have got rid of its trams but it is blessed with an extensive suburban rail network, whereas Istanbul essentially has only two run-down and under-used suburban rail lines.

Istanbul’s other challenges are also far greater than Sydney’s; the city is close to the North Anatolian Fault and has experienced several major earthquakes in its history. This calls for special techniques in underground railway construction, especially if you are contemplating crossing under the Bosporous, which is over 60 metres deep.

If that wasn’t enough there is also Istanbul’s history as the capital of the Byzantine and then the Ottman Empires to contend with. For example, excavation works for the hub of a new rail network at Yenikapi have run into the remains of a fourth-century port, including a number of Byzantine vessels preserved in mud. Archaeological work on this site has already delayed the project by a number of years. As one of the project managers responsible observed, “I can’t think of any challenge this project lacks.”

Istanbul may face many more difficulties than Sydney and may be coming off a lower base in terms of pre-existing infrastructure, but it certainly has been more proactive in recent years. A metro, two light rail lines and a tramway have been constructed, along with a busway. Ironically, the tramway (which provides a public transport spine through the crowded heart of old Istanbul) and the busway (which links suburban population and employment centres) appear to be more extensively patronised than the new light rail and metro links, not to mention the older heavy rail lines.

The Istanbul tramway operates successfully despite very tight clearances

The Istanbul tramway operates successfully despite very tight clearances

This is partly due to the relatively poor connectivity between these transport systems. Some current interchanges are very poor. For example, the Istanbul public transport map would have you believe that there is an interchange between the tramway and light rail at Aksaray, when this actually involves a 300 metre hike across several busy roads. Other “interchanges” are closer but still require crossing busy unsignalled highways to change from one line to another.

In an attempt to overcome this, the new transport interchange at Yenikapi is meant to bring together the heavy rail lines from Europe and Asia (the latter via the already-completed but not yet operational Mamaray tunnel under the Bosphorus), linking them with Istanbul’s metro and light rail lines. The light and heavy rail extensions associated with this will also provide better connectivity with the tramway – when the much-delayed interchange construction is eventually completed.

Yenikapi interchange under construction

Yenikapi interchange under construction

Despite these problems there is still a lot that Sydney can learn from Istanbul, apart from the willingness to get on with the job of building infrastructure (regrettably, this is a lesson Sydney could draw from many other cities). Some examples include:

• Istanbul’s T1 tramway which threads through the narrow streets in the heart of the city provides a dramatic example of how light rail can operate successfully in busy and narrow CBD streets and in corridors where for environmental, engineering or budgetary reasons it is not possible to build metros. Compared to this, expanding Sydney’s light rail into the CBD and out to the eastern suburbs should be a doddle.

• The T1 tramway also demonstrates how trams cope with extremely high demand. While they are very well patronised to the point of being crowded, the high frequency of the trams in the T1 corridor seem to provide enough capacity. On this basis, any eastern suburbs extension of Sydney’s light rail should easily be able to meet demand until (and if) a metro is built, provided provision is made for much higher service frequencies than those on the current light rail.

Typical tramway station in Istanbul - with typical patronage levels

Typical tramway station in Istanbul - with typical patronage levels

• If the challenges of building a heavy-rail tunnel under the deep, wide and earthquake-prone Bosphorus can be overcome, then it should be relatively straightforward to construct a second heavy rail crossing across Sydney Harbour, either in tunnel or as a second deck on the harbour bridge.

• It is also important to look at how such a link can be integrated with other transport modes on either side of the crossing. Interestingly, the approach in Istanbul appears to be use heavy rail to provide links between metros and other transport modes on both sides of the Bosphorus rather than attempting to join these directly. This approach may be relevant to Sydney, where for example a northern beaches light rail network could link to a heavy rail crossing north of the harbour.

• The Turkish government has not been afraid to set specific and ambitious targets for public transport patronage and then to make the required investment in infrastructure required to meet these targets. This is perhaps the ultimate lesson for NSW transport planners.

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