PAUL BENJAMIN – High-speed train construction plagued by disasters, vandalism

High-speed train construction plagued by disasters, vandalismThe partial collapse of a station on the yet-to-be-opened Istanbul-Ankara high-speed train line is the latest in a number of recent setbacks threatening to derail a project already mired in doubt and tragedy. Thursday evening’s accident at a station in the province of Sakarya occurred due to poor working conditions on the line’s construction sites, according to Cemal Gke, president of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of Civil Engineers (IMO).

“Proper safety measures are not in place. Working hours are long, resulting in reduced concentration, which creates these work-related accidents,” said Gke, speaking to Today’s Zaman, adding that the multi-phase project was moving at far too rapid a pace.

The accident, in which six workers were injured, happened just over two weeks after a disastrous explosion killed 301 workers in a mine in the Soma district of the western province of Manisa, resulting in scrutiny and criticism of working conditions and labor safety laws in Turkey. Beginning in 2003 under the direction of Turkish State Railways (TCDD), Turkey’s high-speed rail project marked an effort by the government to focus on the expansion of its rail network after decades of prioritizing motorway expansion.

A line was opened between Istanbul and Ankara in June of 2004, but a train leaving Turkey’s largest city bound for the capital derailed a month later, resulting in 41 deaths. Experts attributed the crash to the inability of the preexisting, outdated rails to handle high-speed trains and had warned beforehand of the inevitability of such a disaster The system was overhauled and new, high-speed-suitable rails were built in place of their faulty, aging predecessors.

A line between Ankara and the city of EskiIehir was opened in 2009 and another between the capital and Konya in 2011. A decade after the fatal 2004 crash, the long-awaited Istanbul-Ankara line was slated to begin operation.

The line was expected to reduce the commute between Istanbul and Ankara to three hours, a journey which takes five to six by bus. But several incidents, the latest of which is Sakarya’s station collapse, have threatened to stop the project in its tracks.

In March, it was reported that 81,000 meters of electric cables had been stolen from construction sites on the Istanbul-Ankara high-speed line, materials reportedly valued at $2.4 million.

In May, Transportation Minister Lutfi Elvan announced that 200 signalization and communication cables had been severed, in addition to 70 track circuit connection systems, incidents of vandalism that Elvan declared to be “sabotage.” The claim that the travel time between Turkey’s largest cities will be reduced to three hours has also been the subject of contention recently.

In an interview with the CNBC program Finans Cafe earlier this week, Mustafa YIldIrIm, president of Ulusoy, one of Turkey’s largest bus companies, said that with stops included, he estimated the journey between Istanbul and Ankara to last between three hours and 45 minutes to four hours. There are 10 stops on the Istanbul-Ankara line.

Earlier this month, Vatan daily columnist Ercan Inan wrote that his estimate of the journey’s duration was 4 hours and 12 minutes. According to Inan, trains will be required to travel at reduced speeds between Ankara and the Bilecik station, located roughly 250 km from Istanbul, as a tunnel along the way could not be opened for service.

This has prevented connections with three additional tunnels, requiring trains to traverse large curves and reducing speed. If opened in this condition it would be more appropriate to call the system not a high-speed but rather an “accelerated” train, said Inan.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman