Gareth Huw Davies

Travel / Travel Features

Across Turkey by train

The first 30 years of Turkey’s tourism story has been utterly dominated by air travel, and more recently cruise ships. It’s the rare intrepid visitor who drives all the way. But now the train is becoming a realistic travel option within Turkey, and even an alternative way to get there.

While we continue to fret over HS2, and whether it even has a future, Turkey is developing its 21st-century affair with the train. In 2019 it signed a deal with the EU to build a 230-kilometer (142 miles), high-speed line, the Halkali Kapikule Railway Project, from Istanbul to the border with Bulgaria (the easternmost point of the EU). The line will cost €1 billion (€275 billion from the EU). Work on the final section began in mid 2023.

This is a vital piece of new railway on the edge of Europe, intended to directly connect Europe and Asia through Turkey. It will benefit freight, and be crucial for tourism, with a vastly speeded-up connection (200 km/h speeds) through Western Turkey.

The line will run from Kapikule, just inside the Turkish border with Bulgaria, to Halkalı, on the outskirts of Istanbul.

It will cut the journey time from Halkalı to Kapikule by two and a half hours, from four hours to one and a half. It will also increase the current line capacity fourfold.

The country has bold plans to improve its existing railways and to build more. Will the 2020s be the decade when Turkey moves decisively into the Age of the Train?

Ankara to Kars Sleeper Train makes a brief stop

I recently took the train from Ankara to Kars, in the far north-eastern corner of Turkey close to the border with Georgia, Armenia and Iran. We travelled on a comfortable sleeper train which took 28 hours on the spectacular, curving route through the mountains of eastern Anatolia. It’s a long way, and we were two hours late in Kars, but I can see this sort of journey becoming an attractive holiday option – the alternatives are long-distance coach or flight. It’s too arduous a trip by car.

The website charts a choice of routes from London to Istanbul, with prices and suggested overnight stops. The Man in Seat 61 recommends a four-day journey (three nights – a combination of sleepers and overnight stops). Suggested stages are London to Paris; Paris to Munich; Munich to Zagreb; Zagreb to Belgrade; Belgrade to Sofia; Sofia to Istanbul.