Inaugurated on 17 January 1875, Istanbul’s Tunnel (Tünel) is the world’s shortest and third-oldest passenger terminal, after the underground systems of London and New York. This one-stop funicular climbs the steeply uphill for 500 meters from Karaköy to Tünel Square at the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi in the Beyoğlu district. Only recently, after five months of renovations, it’s back in service and polished to a new shine.
Obtaining Permission to Build the Tunnel
Tünel is actually and initiative of the French engineer Eugene Henri Gavand. He observed people shuttling between Galata (today Karaköy) and Pera (today Beyoğlu). In those days, people used to work in the low Galata (the center of trade, stock exchange and customs) and live in the uphill Pera with its hotels, embassies and dwellings. The French engineer therefore thought of an alternative way of connecting those two districts of then Constantinople, hence saving people the difficult walk of climbing 60 meters.
He was accepted by Sultan Abdülaziz of the Ottoman Empire to present his elevating railway project to connect both districts. He could convince the sultan, who granted Eugene Henri Gavand permission for his Tünel project on 10 June 1869.
The actual construction of Tünel started on 30 June 1871, and was completed on 5 December 1874. The tunnel consists of two trains running simultaneously on the same track, with only a short duplex part of the track in the middle, where two trains pass side by side and continue their ways to opposite directions. The installation was powered by two steam engines of 150 HP. The original wooden wagons used to have both sides open and were illuminated by gas lamps as no electricity was available in those years.
To convince the public of the railway’s safety, the initial runs were carried out with animals on board only. Only after a magnificent inauguration ceremony with the participation of distinguished native and foreign guests on 17 January 1875 the normal runs to serve people started.
The Tunnel throughout the Years
Tünel was out of operation for about 3,5 months during the Second World War due to a shortage of spare parts. It was completely renovated to its present structure by a French company called Electro Entreprise. After 96 years of service, the nostalgic wooden carriages were replaced by modern metal versions. However, the red-beige paintings reconstructing the timber claddings still evoke the old days of the railway.
Currently, the two steel cars, each 16 meters long and on pneumatic tires, run simultaneously in opposite directions, carrying a total of 170 people in 90 seconds over a distance of 573 meters. At cruising speed, the train goes approximately 25 km/h. The underground system is no longer powered by steam machines, but with a 350 HP electrical engine.
Today, the tiny Tünel is still useful for most of Istanbul’s population. It is part of the municipal transport network and integrated tickets are valid. At the same time tourists are attracted by this combination of century-old history and modernity. Look for on the Map with Tourist Attractions in the Modern Part of Istanbul.
At the end of 2008, after five months of renovations, Tünel is certainly worth using and/or visiting. The Karaköy station, set back from the main road just off the Galata Bridge, is by far the nicer of the two. Traditional Turkish tiles patterned with blue-white tulips and quaint but huge pictures of the Galata Tower, Hagia Sophia and other sights welcome passengers.
The best way to get there is via the underpass at the end of the Galata Bridge. Look for the exit/entrance marked Tünel (see picture). To board it (at either station), you will have to buy a token or use your akbil. Tünel operates from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The maximum wait is two minutes.