ANKARA: Turkey on Friday inaugurates the first high-speed train link between its main cities of Ankara and Istanbul, in the latest bid by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to modernise the country's infrastructure.
After years of constant delays that has seen the project become a standing joke among Turks, Erdogan on Friday evening is due to glide into Istanbul aboard the first train.
The opening comes ahead of presidential elections on August 10 that are expected to see Erdogan sweep to victory as head of state, after a campaign in which he has constantly boasted of his efforts to improve transportation in Turkey.
But the project has been hit by repeated postponements of the opening date and mishaps - including when one of the new trains crashed into a maintenance vehicle this month.
The line will not terminate in the centre of Istanbul, but on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in the suburb of Pendik, some two hours from the centre in the city's often heavy traffic.
There are safety concerns too: train accidents are frequent on Turkey's network and in 2004 dozens of people were killed when a newly-inaugurated high-speed train derailed in the northwest.
Yet, with an intense if belated advertising campaign - TV adverts show smiling children waving at the train as it surges through the fields - the government is now pulling out all the stops to make it a success.
Connecting east and west
Erdogan, whose Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has dominated politics for over a decade, presents himself the man leading Turkey's transformation into a modern country with a European standard of living and infrastructure.
Last year he inaugurated the Marmaray tunnel, which for the first time connects Istanbul's two sides - where Europe and Asia meet - with a metro link deep underground beneath the waters of the Bosphorus.
He is also a driving force behind plans for a third bridge over the Bosphorus and a huge new third airport for Istanbul.
Turkey started building its railways in the mid-19th century during the Ottoman Empire, when world powers like Britain, France and Germany were given concessions to build stretches of track.
The story goes that they were paid by the mile, resulting in an often bizarrely circuitous rail network that exists to this day.
Development of the railways was also taken up by modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but the system fell into neglect in tough economic times from the 1960s when hardly any new track was built.
The government hopes the $4.25 billion (3.16 billion euro) Ankara-Istanbul link will help revolutionise travelling habits in Turkey, where most people get around by bus or plane.
The new high-speed line has already cut the travel time between the two cities to 3.5 hours.
Eventually the Turkish government also wants the terminus to be on the European side of Istanbul, with trains travelling through the Marmaray tunnel.
Trains are to run at 250 kilometres per hour (150 miles per hour) along the 511 kilometre (317 mile) line, which was first envisaged in 2003 when the AK Party came to power.
High-speed trains have connected Ankara with other cities in Anatolia for some years but this is the first time Istanbul will be connected to the network.
Erdogan has set 2023 - the 100th anniversary of the founding of the republic by Ataturk - as the target to connect Turkey's east and west by high speed rail line. -AFP