Rail Travel in Turkey
This short "frequently asked questions" is meant for the west European citizen travelling to Turkey. This text was written by private individuals based on their personal experiences. The comments are completely subjective and slightly biased towards TCDD. At the end of the day I would encourage any serious railfan to make a trip to Turkey.
No responsibility can be endorsed for the comments made hereunder. It is the readers' duty to check the local conditions upon arrival and make the best of it!
- 1. Why should I go to Turkey anyway?
- 2. Where can I find TCDD timetables?
- 3. Should I make seat reservation?
- 4. Where to buy tickets and reservations?
- 5. Do you recommend some websites?
- 6. Are the trains on time?
- 7. When is the best weather in Turkey?
- 8. Is a photo permit required to shoot trains?
- 9. Can I reach Turkey by train from Western Europe?
- 10. Can I cross the border to go further East?
- 11. Is it safe to travel by train in Turkey?
- 12. Where can I find live steam operations?
- 13. Where should I go?
- 14. Is Turkish langage difficult?
- 15. Is here anything to see in Istanbul?
Any serious railfan ought to go to Turkey:
- The network, fully single track is quite large with about 8000km. An east west cross-country trip from Istanbul to Kars or Kurtalan is almost 2000 km and can be done without changing train. The network runs through mountain scenery with some of the most difficult passes in Europe.
- Heavy diesel in action can be seen everywhere, either on passengers or on heavy iron ore block trains. The busiest lines have up to 50 main line trains a day. Some of the key lines are being electrified, reducing the scope of the diesel actions in the coming years.
- Train operation is a mix of modern technology and Oriental habits, giving a unique flavor quite different to the sleek and cold operation encountered in Western Europe. The trains are on average comfortable and often have a restaurant car.
- The people are always nice and welcoming. The way of life is very pleasant. Yes, one can easily get a bier after a long day of train spotting in the sun!
- Finally, the current exchange rate is to the advantage of the European travelers and living cost in Turkey will appear cheap.
TCDD sometimes publishes printed timetables. This does not occur every year and the book is near to impossible to find. In addition, TCDD most zealous employee treats timetables as state secret.
Currently, the best official information is available either:
- on internet through TCDD officials web site. TCDD has since 2003 a new website, quite comprehensive. An English translation was added in early 2006. Express and international train timetable are available in English. Unfortunately, local train timetables are not translated into English. Follow Yurtiçi Yolcu Tasimaciligi to find these timetables. The timetable are self explenatory. Use our dictionary to translate the key words.
- Trough the TCDD smartphone applications
- At the station of departure.
Most of the trains can be boarded without reservation. Reservation is advised and compulsory on some trains, it must be checked when buying the tickets. Trains can be busy but almost never full.
Peak rushes occur at time of public holidays. On those few days, trains can be packed.
Of course, reservations are mandatory for sleeping cars.
Buying tickets and reservations was the most frustrating experience one can have in Turkey due to the lack of a proper computerized ticketing system. This is now a thing of the past. It is now possible to buy train tickets online and through smartphone app.
The classic way is to buy the ticket / reservation from the point of departure. Clerks usually don't speak English but are most of the time friendly and welcoming to the foreigners. They will always try their best to help and find solutions. Very often, another passenger will step up to help with the translation.
Many travel agencies are also licenced to sell train tickets, a good solution for those seeking an English speaking service.
Turkey has a very large tourist industry and there many online ressources available. However, the bulk of tourism is done by plane and bus, very few if any consider the train. Here some recommandations, in English, targeted at railway travel.
- Turkey travel planner by Tom Brosnahan. Be sure to check his tips about trains in Turkey in the Transport section. This site is highty recommended.
- The Man in seat Sixty One: how to reach Turkey and other places by rail. Also some usefull information about travelling inside Turkey and beyond to Iran, Georgia, …
- Enthusiast's Guide to Travelling the Railways of Europe (EGTRE) with some good information about little used and obscure lines.
Time keeping is getting better and better as the network modernizes. However the culture is still not focused on timekeeping and a train arriving within one hour of its schedule would be considered on time. The entire network is single track and some lines are quite busy with freight traffic, Trains crossings is difficulty to plan and a train path is easily lost.
Horror stories of trains behind schedule by more than 24h abound. The fact is that cross-country trains such as Erzurum or Tatvan to Istanbul can be very late in winter when the trains are held back by snow and mudslides. This happens once or twice a year. In summer time, a delay by more than a couple of hours would be very rare.
One can travel all year around in Turkey. Most of inland Turkey has a so-called continental weather either very hot or very cold but sunny most of the time. Snow and sub-zero temperature are encountered on most of the network from mid December to mid March. But even in winter, the sky remains clear, fog is rare and some of the best pictures have been taken at that time. The temperature in summer is quite high and the light is very strong.
Spring and autumn are the best in my opinion: the weather is still warm, even hot but nights are cool. Spring has the added benefit of green nature and longer daylight. Speaking of nature, most plants gets sunburned (and brownish) in late May / June everywhere except along the Black Sea coast. Finally one must bear in mind that the network stretch from north to south: Adana area will be in the twenties degrees almost year around whereas Erzincan can be under snow very late. This can be useful to amend a trip at the last minute according to weather condition.
In theory, a photo permit is required. But this permit is almost impossible to get. In addition, being issued by TCDD Ankara headquarters, it might not be recognized in all locations!
In practice: the best is to ask locally for photo permission to whoever looks in charge, it is usually granted. In addition, one might get invited to the customary tea. If nobody is around, go ahead and take pictures. These days, the authorities are very tolerant with tourists and at worst, somebody will come and ask you to put away the camera.
However, three pieces of advice:
- Never take a picture at anything that looks (even remotely) military.
- Stay within public areas (platform, road, overpass,...). Stay outside sidings, depots and TCDD right of way unless invited by TCDD personnel.
- Safety first: stay safe from the trains at all time and don't attempt jay walking on the tracks.
Although the Orient-Express no longer reaches Istanbul, it is currently fairly easy to enter Turkey by train from Bulgaria. The border is crossed at Kapıkule, near Edirne. One of the classical routes is via Vienna, Budapest, Bucharesti, Sofia and Istanbul. It might now be possible again to go via Belgrade and Niç. For further information regarding connection to reach Istanbul, please refer to the Man in seat sixty-one.
Entry from Greece may or may not be possible. The way use to be from Thessaloniki up to Pythion. From there the border is crossed to Uzunköprü and to Pehlivanköy the junction on the Edirne Istanbul main line. Please cross check with OSE (State Greek Railways) and TCDD about train cancellations.
At this moment, tt is not possible to enter Turkey from Greece due to cancellation of trains by OSE. The way use to be from Thessaloniki up to Pythion. From there the border is crossed to Uzunköy and to Pehlivanköy the junction on the Edirne Istanbul main line.
Border situation can change very quickly. It is strongly advised to check train schedule prior to departing. Turkey is well served by bus and mini-bus and this is always an alternative in case of train cancellation.
Currently, a hardened traveler can cross to Iran by bus or by train. A direct car is advertised as running twice a week from Van to Teheran. The border is crossed between Kapiköy and Razi, near the Iranian town of Quotur. This car might be replaced by a bus service from Van to the border.
Due to events in Syria and especially in Allepo area, travelling there is not possible.
It is not possible to cross the border to Armenia by train.
TCDD are as safe as any other trains in Europe, perhaps even safer. Stolen wallets or luggage are rare. Even in the worst suburb trains, the crowd is not as aggressive as it could be on certain West European trains. Of course, one must not take unnecessary risks and stay on the watch, as any traveler should do.
Derailments, some level crossing crashes and other accidents occur on TCDD metals, but due to the low speed of the trains, casualties are minimal. TCDD had not had a major accident for years. TCDD safety track record is as good as any other major operator in Europe. Safety is not a concern.
Turkey has it's share of terrorist activities, with some high profile attacks in Istanbul airport and key touristic areas. Fortunately, railway stations and trains have been spared for the moment. However, there is still a risk of an attack occurring in a train. Again, I would think this risk is not much higher than elsewhere in Europe.
TCDD is keeping some steam engines in (more or less) running condition but there is unfortunately no regular scheduled live steam currently in Turkey. Not even for touristic purpose.
The steam engines are sometime used on chartered trains but the timetable of those trains is next to impossible to get. Plinthed engines can be seen everywhere, in front of most major stations as well as in museums.
The classical trip by train goes as follows: Istanbul to Ankara. Ankara to Zonguldak and back. Ankara to Kars (Sivas for the less courageous). From Kars, back to Çetinkaya and then down Malatya. Malatya to Adana. Adana to Afyon. Afyon to Izmir via Aydin. Izmir back to Istanbul via Manissa.
This is a quite long trip and it can be shortened using night trains. This trip leaves out some very interesting branches: Sivas to Samsun, the line to Van lake, ... These lines can be done on a return trip.
Yes, Turkish langage is very different from the other European languages. However, most people dealing with tourist such as hotel employees will speak a minimun of English or German.
Railway technical terms are often easier because they are frequently derived from French or English words. As a help, you can use the dictionary of common rail words compiled by TrainsofTurkey.com readers.
Istanbul has two terminal stations Sirkeci and Haydarpasa. Each station use to have enough traffic to keep a railfan busy for a day but they are now both closed to traffic due to works for the tunnel under the Bosphorus. Still I recommend to visit the buidlings.
The train ferry linking the two stations was quite unique too.
In Sirkeci, the old E8000 EMU are now impossible to spot The E8000 are nearly 50 years old and are real museum grade material. If you go to the Topkapi Palace Museum, have lunch at the Konyali Restaurant within its compound and make sure to sit at a table on the edge of the wall. The food is not great but you can watch the rail line bordered by the centuries-old walls of the citadel with the Bosphorus as the backdrop. The leads (headshunt?) of the Sirkeci yard are also visible here.
Then take a boat to cross the Bosphorus to Haydarpasa. Haydarpasa depot and yard can be seen from the road overpass.
Do not forget to visit the Rahmi Koç museum. Reserve at least half a day for this place. The museum displays more than a century of industrial jewels, including a TCDD G10. They have a real nice up-scale restaurant and cafe. Lunch would be recommended. You can take one of the smaller city boats to "Hasköy"; (I think). The Golden Horn is slowly becoming a place for tourists, as heavy industry is moving elsewhere
Fans of urban transportation should really have a look at the Tünel, the old funicular linking Karaköy to Beyoglu and the two nostalic tram lines. These short lines are using authentic presereved rolling stock. The new tramway lines are also worth a visit as they go through the most historic part of the city.