With the opening of Marmaray, media presented as “Europe is connected to Asia by rail, a continuous travel from UK to China is not possible”.
Unfortunately, Marmaray is only connecting the edges of the continents, the two sides of Istanbul, for now.
That correction comes from the fact that, Marmaray’s both ends are not yet connected with national railway network of Turkey. So Marmaray is only being used for public transportation in İstanbul, but not allowing railcars coming from Europe to pass through the tunnel and go to Asia “technically”. There’s still 63 km railway to be constructed, and will hopefully be ready by 2015.
What about afterwards? Will Turkey connects Europe to Asia via Marmaray after 2015? Will a train travel starting from UK to China via Marmaray without any interruption after everything is ready? Was China not connected to UK by rail before Marmaray? Let’s look at the alternatives by rail between China and Europe, and answer all these questions.
Railway Service Through Russia
This route is being used since 1973 to transport goods between China and Germany, passing through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus and Poland. Since Germany, Poland and China are using standard gauge rails with 1435mm where Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus use broad gauge with 1520mm, the service is given mainly by container trains where containers transshipped to/from CIS wagons first in China border and then in Poland border. The north route is for north regions of China, and is crossing only Russia. The south route is for south regions of China, and is crossing first Kazakhstan, and then Russia. Almost the whole route is double-lane and record time for these routes is 15 days.
For conventional railcars, traveling via different gauges is “technically” possible. Especially some of the Russian railcars (so the Spanish ones as well) have this ability, by changing the axles. But it’s again an interruption at the end, and not very common.
Railway Service Through Marmaray and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars
This route is called as “Iron Silk Road” and being invested by Turkish government for a while, both with Marmaray and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars projects.
Although this route is being presented as continuous link between Europe and China, there’ll be “must stop” points on way. Trains departed from Europe will be able to pass through Marmaray, and continue through single-lane in Turkey, but will stop in Georgia, since only 29 km in Georgia is standard gauge. Then starts the broad gauge, the existing lines, from Akhalkalaki till Baku, which is being modernized to increase the capacity.
Since there’s Caspian Sea between Baku and further, the train ferries will be the next step to China. Most probably trains will follow Kazakhstan before China. Of course, the border of Kazakhstan and China will need another transhipment because of another gauge change.
There’s another route, the south one, passing through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. That route may be preferred for loads to these countries, but most probably will be too slow for China since every country means additional stops.
Since “through Russia” has less stops than the “through Marmaray” alternative and has similar gauge barriers, Marmaray will surely empower railway traffic to Turkey and Middle East, but has lots of disadvantages for railway traffic between China and Europe compared with the other alternative.