After several years of delays, Istanbul’s ambitious metro and tramway expansion programme is back on track, reports David O’Byrne. Several new lines are set to open while others are moving from planning to construction.


More than TL1bn has been budgeted for work on the 13·4 km Ataköy – İkitelli line M9, the first section of which is expected to open this year.

This year is set to see the opening of various metro and tram extensions in Istanbul, as both the municipal and national governments forge ahead with priority projects in a bid to overcome a backlog in public transport provision and boost rail’s market share.

Istanbul is by far the largest city in Turkey, with an estimated population of 15·4 million inhabitants, although figures published by the Turkish Statistics Institute at the end of January showed a slight drop as the result of the coronavirus pandemic — the first fall in two decades. Nevertheless, the huge population density means there is still much to do.

Istanbul opened its first light metro line M1 in 1989, as a response to ballooning traffic volumes which were already making the city’s main highways all but impassable at peak periods. Although more routes were planned, the expansion programme was slowed by successive economic crises. By the end of the 1990s, M1 had only been extended to 16km and joined by the 18·5 km tram route T1.

Subsequent progress has been significantly more rapid, and the network now totals 260route-km. Excluding the upgraded Marmaray suburban route managed by national railway TCDD, there are seven metro lines in service, including the driverless M5, the country’s first fully automated metro, along with five tram routes, two cable cars and three funiculars. Operation of the expanding network has been transferred from municipal bus company IETT to a dedicated municipally-owned business, Istanbul Metro AŞ.

Work continues on extending the system further, with projects totalling 205 route-km either under construction or tendered. Most of these are extensions or second phases of existing metro and tram routes. According to mayor Ekrem Imamoğlu, all of the lines under development will be completed by 2024, extending the network to 425 km, and raising rail’s share of the city’s passenger transport market from 18% to 35%.

Meanwhile, feasibility and planning work has been completed on a further 14 lines totalling 197 km — all of which are expected to be realised by 2029. These would take the network to 622 km, but the city’s plans do not stop there. Another 40 lines are under consideration, which would extend the rail network to around 1 100 km.

View map of the Istanbul urban rail network


Construction of the initial 6·9 km Hastane–Yenidoğan section of line M13 on the Asian side of the city was tendered in 2017.

Financial stand-off

In recent years, progress has not been as smooth as envisaged. A crippling economic crisis in 2018 caused the lira to drop by more than 40% against the US$ and €, which saw the national government in Ankara slashing investment budgets. Construction was halted on most Istanbul metro and tramway projects, while others that had recently been tendered were prevented from starting.

tr Istanbul Golden Horn tramway (1)

Opened on January 1, the catenary-free tram route T5 runs alongside the Golden Horn from Cibali to an interchange with line M7 at Alibeyköy.

These delays to long awaited infrastructure were deeply unpopular, costing the ruling party the 2019 mayoral elections. President Tayyip Erdogan’s party lost control of his home city for the first time since he was elected mayor in 1993.

Newly elected Imamoğlu was quick to criticise the outgoing administration for having tendered projects that could not be delivered, promising not only to get the expansion programme back on track, but also to launch further projects.

The ensuing stand-off saw Ankara attempt to block the city’s efforts, and the municipality found it was unable to secure loans from Turkey’s three state banks. In early 2020, Imamoğlu complained that the Treasury was refusing to approve a commercial loan that the municipality had secured to fund completion of the Alibeyköy – Eminönü tram route T5, Bostanci – Dudullu metro line M8 and the driverless M13 between Yenidoğan and Hastane.

Forced by public opinion to backtrack and approve the loan, the government responded by transferring responsibility for a number of stalled lines to the Ministry of Transport. This ensured both that they would be completed and that there would be a ministerial presence at the opening ceremonies.

Continuing to bypass the state banks, the municipality negotiated a series of loans with major international lenders, including EBRD, the Black Sea Trade & Development Bank, Société Generale, Deutsche Bank and the French development agency AFD. This enabled work to restart on sections of lines M1b, M4, M5 and M12.

Then in December it succeeded in completing the city’s first international Eurobond sale. This netted US$580m to fund completion of four part-built projects: Line M1b, the Pendik – Kaynakca – Tuzla section of M4, the Çekmeköy – Sultanbeyli section of M5, and the Mahmutbey – Esenyurt section of M7.

Budget allocations for 2021 have seen the Transport Ministry allocated YTL5bn for work on four metro lines, including routes to both of the city’s airports (Table I). The municipality expects to spend TL11·3bn on eight metro lines and one tramway.

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Table I. 2021 budget for Istanbul urban rail expansion
Line Route Funded by Allocation
M3 north  Başakşehir – Kayaşehir  Ministry  845 
M3 south  Bakırköy – Kirazlı  785 
M4 east  Tavşantepe – Sabiha Gökçen Airport  332 
M11  Gayrettepe – Istanbul Airport  3 046
M1b west  Kirazlı – Halkalı  Municipality 

1 822

M5 east  Çekmeköy – Sultanbeyli  626 
M7 west  Mahmutbey – Bahçeşehir (Esenyurt) 1 322 
M7 south Mecidiyeköy – Kabataş  1 159
M8  Dudullu – Bostancı  1 315
M9  Ataköy – İkitelli 1 052
M10  Pendik – Tuzla  862 
M12  Ümraniye – Göztepe  2 652
T5  Alibeyköy – Eminönü 529 
Total Ministry     5 008 
Total Municipality    11 339 
Total 2021 budget 16 347

Progress despite pandemic

tr Istanbul metro M7 opening (2)

Inaugurated in October 2020, the 18 km first phase of driverless line M7 links Mecidiyeköy and Mahmutbey.

While metro construction has restarted, the situation has not been helped by the pandemic. Metro AŞ ridership plummeted by two-thirds from 704·5 million passenger-journeys in 2019 to just 222·5 million last year — the lowest figure since 2006.

But while revenues fell the operating costs did not, as services were kept running to carry workers providing essential services, even during periods of full lockdown. In addition, the operator was hit with extra costs estimated at TL500m for additional measures in response to the pandemic, such as enhanced cleaning and protection.

Nevertheless, the municipality announced in mid-2020 that it was still on course to open five of the stalled expansion schemes by the end of 2021, and to commission at least 20km of new line each year until the next elections in 2024.

Two projects have already opened in the past few months. The 18 km first phase of fully automated line M7 between Mecidiyeköy and Mahmutbey was inaugurated in October. Work on the remaining section of M7 phase 1 from Mecidiyeköy to Kabataş was delayed by archaeological discoveries — a perennial problem in such a historic city — but is expected to be completed in early 2022. Tenders were called in 2017 for a western extension from Mahmutbey to Esenyurt, adding a further 12 stations, and construction of this section is expected to get underway this year.

January 1 saw the opening of the 8·8 km initial section of the catenary-free tram route T5 from an interchange with M7 at Alibeyköy to Cibaliw. Work on this line along the historic west shore of the Golden Horn estuary had been halted for a second time last year, when subsidence forced a 1·5 km section to be rebuilt.

The route is equipped with Alstom’s APS ground-level power supply, and the company has also provided matching equipment for the 30-strong fleet of trams manufactured by Durmazlar.

A further 1·3 km extension with two stops would see T5 extended from Cibali to Eminönü, providing interchange with T1 and M2. However, the work is currently on hold pending the complete reconstruction of the complex road junction serving the Ataturk Bridge under which the line must tunnel.

A slew of openings

With construction now underway on no less than 12 extensions or new line projects, the municipality has already confirmed its intention to open the Bahariye – İkitelli section of M9 this year; this line will run north through the western suburbs from an interchange with the Marmaray suburban route at Atakoy to meet M3 at İkitelli. M3 itself is due to be extended northwest from Başakşehir to Kayaşehir during 2021.

On the Asian side of the city, line M4 is due to be extended from Tavşantepe to Sabiha Gökçen Airport; this branch will share tracks with M10, which diverges to serve Pendik Hospital close to the Sea of Marmara coast.

The first short section of the lengthy M11 airport express line is due to open between the Gayrettepe interchange on M2 and Kagithane on M7. Funicular F4 will connect Aşıyan on the Bosporus with the eastern end of metro line M6 at Rumeli Hisari Üstü.

A further five lines are scheduled for completion in 2022. However, no dates have yet been set for the completion of Line M1b from Kirazlı to Halkalı or the Mahmutbey – Esenyurt extension of M7.


Tunnel borning is underway on the first section of airport express metro M11.

Ambitious plans

With urban transport expected to remain a major political issue ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2023 and the city elections the following year, both the municipality and the transport ministry are continuing to develop new projects.

Tenders are likely to be invited this year for construction of the second phase of line M11, looping west and south from the new Istanbul Airport to an interchange with Marmaray and main line services at Halkalı, which is being developed by the ministry.

Also to be tendered will be an as yet un-numbered east-west metro line with 19 stations running for 25km from Incirli to the Tüyap trade fair at Beylikdüzü in the far west, which is scheduled to be the venue for this year’s Eurasiarail exhibition on November 25-27. Feasibility studies have been completed for the route, which is intended to cross the narrow strip of land between the Sea of Marmara and Kucukcekmece lake; that would be replaced by a bridge if the government’s plans to construct a ship canal to the Black Sea go ahead.

Meanwhile, the municipality has completed feasibility studies for seven more metro lines and three extensions, as well as two additional tram routes. These will be tendered as and when financing has been secured. There is also a list of almost 40 more projects under consideration for future development, including heavy rail and metro lines, both underground and elevated, tramways and cable cars.

If that were not enough, Imamoglu announced in mid-2020 that the municipality was considering plans for a new tram or metro line on the Asian shore of the Bosporus linking the districts of Anadolu Hısar and Kandilli, with the ferry terminal at Küçüksu, together with five underground funicular lines linking the existing ferry and seabus terminals with hilltop districts.

Last month, the mayor confirmed that the municipality was going ahead with its ambitious plans for a 72km, 11-station express metro line, provisionally costed at upwards of US$5bn. This would link Beylikdüzü on the European side of the city with Sabiha Gökçen Airport in the east, with trains running at up to 80km/h. A feasibility study started last year is due to be completed soon, he said, after which tenders for construction will be opened.

Branded as Hizray, this project could potentially supersede or incorporate the 30·2km Incirli – Söğütlüçeşme line floated by the ministry in 2019, which was intended to cross the Bosporus using a three-deck road and rail tunnel.


Completion of the second section of line M7 has been delayed by archaological discoveries, as seen in the Beşiktaş district.