Istanbul to Ankara by ‘High Speed Train
or all you need to know about travelling on intercity trains in Turkey …. well perhaps not all but enough for you to get by before you really understand how the system works.
This post (and the one that follows) will concentrate on a couple of journeys made (the first from Istanbul to Ankara on the High Speed Train, the second the overnight train from Ankara to Kars) at the end of September 2019. I plan to provide enough information for the first time visitor to Turkey and someone who doesn’t have a word of the language.
Obviously the internet makes life much easier now but there are always little snippets of information that you only acquire by luck or circumstance – the latter being knowledge gained after you had made a mistake (if only we knew then what we know now).
There are different routes to booking websites whatever you want to buy. However, I have found that many of those routes lead to a dead end, especially if you want to go to a page in a language other than the native one.
I found this TCDD link the one that worked for me.
High Speed Train from Istanbul to Ankara
Book as long in advance as possible. I’m not talking about months as the tickets aren’t released until a few weeks but if you leave it to a matter of days then you will be pushed for choice. I ended getting the last seat in the Business Plus class.
It was not really the last seat but the last seat that a male could buy. When booking train seats in Turkey you have to declare your gender. Of the two seats in the car one was a double seat where a female had already booked. When I clicked on that one it refused the request. When I clicked on the lone seat, at the end of the carriage by the entrance/exit to the next carriage, all was OK.
So the process:
Once on the site click on ‘English’ in the top tight corner. If it doesn’t go to English try until it does. Then choose your starting point and destination, the date of departure then whether you want single or return and, if so, the date. Click Continue.
This brings up the available trains on your date. Decide a time, click on the arrow for the drop down menu for class of travel, i.e., economy, business or business plus and choose. Click select. The price for your class of travel will be shown. Click Continue at the bottom of the page.
Then will come up a diagrammatic representation of the carriage with the class you selected. Click on your choice of seat WITHOUT a cartoon face of a man or woman. Remember what I said above about the system not liking a male to choose a seat next to a female who had booked before you. (Here, I assume, there is no problem if a woman is comfortable sitting next to a man.)
You will be asked to select your gender and if the system likes you the seat will be selected for you. Scroll down and fill in your personal details. Once completed click continue.
This will take you to the payment page. Remember – at least those from EU countries (and even the UK as it is about to leave) if you attempt to make a payment with a debit/credit card from now on you will get a code sent to your registered mobile number so have your phone handy. The code is only valid for about 10 minutes. Complete all transactions requested and you will receive confirmation of a ticket. This will also be sent to your email address.
However, you do not need to print the ticket. At the station of departure you will be asked for your Passport/ID and if the name appears on the system you will be given a small print out with your carriage and seat number.
Business Plus TL127.50
As far as I can see these prices don’t change depending upon when you book – as is the case in the UK.
I was planning to continue on from Ankara on the overnight train to Kars. The ideal train – for a shorter waiting time in Ankara Station – would have been the 11.45, arriving at 16.10. However, I left booking a little late and had to catch the earlier 09.15. That was scheduled to arrive in Ankara Gar at 13.52. As it was it was about 15 minutes late. All trains from Istanbul to Ankara with the high speed train (YHT-TCDD) take, more or less, 4 and a half hours.
Arrival at Söğütlüçeşme
Söğütlüçeşme is on the ‘Asian’ side of Istanbul and the departure station to Ankara. Wherever you are staying in Istanbul get to the Marmaray Metro line and head east. The Bosphorus are indicated with a blue lake on the destination board. From the old part of Istanbul, where most people will be staying, it’s only 3 or 4 stops, say 10 to 15 minutes.
On arrival at Söğütlüçeşme go down the escalator/stairs to the lower concourse. Near to the southern entrance to the station you will see an X-ray machine and metal detector gates. Also security. You can’t go through here at any time unless there’s a train about to depart.
Put all your bags on the conveyor for the machine and go through the metal detector gate. Immediately in front of your are a couple of desks. Show your Passport/ID and if your name comes up you will be given a little ticket, as stated above.
Head upstairs and look for your carriage and then your seat. It leaves promptly.
Wifi on the train
At least in the Business class carriage there’s free wifi and (the tunnels not withstanding) quite fast. You have to register on a TCDD log-in page with the PNR number that was on your booking confirmation (so remember to make a note of that) as well as your seat number. If the two match up you will be connected. (The PNR number is also on the slip given to you downstairs.)
All seats have a two round pin socket just below the seat. I didn’t see any USB sockets.
What do you get for the extra you pay for the Business Plus?
About 30 minutes after departure the catering staff came around with aircraft style food trolleys. They offered the passengers in those seats a little tray with; three small pieces of cheese (one of them spreadable; a few cherry tomatoes, a small dish of olives; a small dish with dried apricots and chopped walnuts; a small bread roll; a piece of baklava with a small jar of honey; a small container of still water; and the choice of tea or coffee. As well as the hot drinks you could also ask for more water or fruit juices.
I thought that for the TL24 extra on top of the business class price that was quite good. Just over £3.00, and brought to your seat. Also the staff came around on two further occasions during the trip with the offer of more cold and/or hot drinks. As I had an early start and missed breakfast it arrived at a good time.
I assume the Business class passengers get the offer of free drinks but not the food.
Cafe/shop on board
If you don’t do Business Plus and haven’t brought anything to eat/drink with you there’s a small bar in carriage No 2. These trains operate as units and this should always be the case. They didn’t have a big selection but you could get sandwiches, biscuits and other sweet things, as well as drinks. I didn’t buy anything so can’t give a price. But as with all transport throughout the world the cost will be greater than if you bought the same stuff in a supermarket before arriving at the station.
High Speed Train?
Yes – and no. We had been travelling for more than an hour before the train reached a speed of 100 km/h. There’s a screen in the back of the seat in front of you as well as two or three bigger ones from the ceiling along the length of the carriage. They become quiet hypnotic – especially when the speeds start to pick up.
It would be better to call it an Express Train with the capability of being a truly High Speed Train like the TGV in France, the AVE in Spain or the HSR in China.
But that fact made it a more pleasant and interesting journey.
I thought it might be ‘light the blue torch paper and stand back’. But it was nothing of the kind. It’s quite a convoluted circuit to get out of a city that was built long before high speed trains were thought of. The line is a dedicated track but it is not always possible for it to reach the potential speeds of the motor itself.
There were also three pick-up stations quite close to the start so those who may be living further east than Söğütlüçeşme station don’t need to go to there to catch the train.
As it weaves its way through the suburbs you start to get a view of life you probably wouldn’t have seen if you were there as a incidental tourist. It passes through rich areas, close to the sea, where there are large yachts in the marinas. There are small holiday resorts with bars and restaurants that look out on to the Mediterranean.
Later it passes through industrial areas where there are various factories, docks – both for small cargo ships and then there’s a major container terminal – it also passes right through the middle of two not insignificant oil refineries – which I didn’t think would happen in countries further west in Europe.
At times the line ran within a few metres of the water line and you could look out and see freighters of various sizes, from those that just plied the coast of Turkey to bigger, ocean going container ships. There were even a couple of small warships.
The line passed under the bridge that spans the Sea of Mamara.
For most of that time the maximum speed was little more than 50-60 km/h but then, quite suddenly it sped up and reached a speed of 230 km/h for a few minutes before having to slow again as the line twisted and turned (but without going significantly higher) through small mountains and river systems.
There were a number of station stops but they were very quick, barely enough time for nicotine addicts to get their fix.
The route then left the urbanisation and industrialisation of Istanbul behind and the scenes became more rural, passing through small villages and quite intensive agriculture. A lot of maize and then a sizeable amount of autumn fruits; pomegranates, apples, plums, chestnuts, some grapes.
It was also possible to see that the year was changing. Although the temperatures were still in the mid to high 20s it was noticeable that the leaves on the trees in the hills and mountains on either side of the line were starting to turn. Autumn may not be here quite yet but it’s not that far away.
Speeds started to pick up and the top speed of 250 km/h was being reached on more and more occasions – and for longer stretches. This was even through significantly long tunnels where the train didn’t slow at all but still remained in the dark for a few minutes. And there were quite a few of them at various parts of the route.
Together with the motorway system, which the train line at times parallels and at others crosses, there has obviously been a major investment in the transport infrastructure of this part of eastern Turkey. Whether that extends beyond Ankara I will find out in due course.
The achievements of the navvies in the construction of first the canal system and then the railways in the UK at the end of the 18th and into the middle of the 19th centuries were amazing achievements as all the cuttings and embankments were constructed by sheer force of muscle. But the new projects show what huge advances there have been in earth moving technology and huge cuttings are the norm rather than the exception.
The name ‘High Speed Train’ came into its own during the last hour or so of the journey. Once past the town of Eskisehir, the route went through a Plain. Flat as a pancake and seeming to go on forever – on all sides. Here sustained speeds of 240-250 km/h became the norm and, apart from one stop half way through this stretch, continued until reaching a commuter town for Ankara.
This plain was dominated by maize production as well as that of other cereal crops, many of them already harvested. I was a little surprised to see no real evidence of livestock rearing, apart from the occasional small flock of sheep.
I wouldn’t say it was a bleak landscape but there were a few blocks of relatively new flats on the outskirts of a town about 30 minutes from Ankara. Everything around the buildings was brown, dusty and parched with no greenery. Perhaps that changes with the coming autumn and winter but at the end of summer it looked sparse.
What else to say?
Perhaps all the locals are used to it but at regular intervals it felt as if something had hit the bottom of the carriage. This banging was, if I’ve got it right, the hydraulic brake system resetting itself but you hear, and feel, this thump all along the route.
As the British are obsessed with the state of the toilets I can reveal here that there were as good as any you’ll find on the British railway system – and probably better than some.
Finally, in regards the journey. There’s a stop in a small town about 15 minutes from the centre of Ankara. My train arrived at that stop at the time it was scheduled to arrive in Ankara Gar. Just a warning that it would cause problems if you got out thinking you had reached the end of the journey. Unfortunately, Turkish stations don’t seem to be very well signed on the platforms – although the name of the station comes up on the digital display board at the end of the carriage.
Arrival at Ankara Gar
The YHT station is separate from the general station. It’s a huge building, underused and obviously some sort of vanity project for some politician or political party which is just too big for the amount of traffic that passes through it – or will ever pass through it.
Within this structure, as well as access to the platforms there are shops, cafes and the ubiquitous fast food chains – some international some national. And a lot of empty space.
If the weather is good and you have time to spare you could do worse than go up to the top (second floor British) and go out on the huge veranda that looks down on the older station as well as a sizeable chunk of Ankara disappearing away into the hills on the horizon. Won’t, personally, be seeing much more of Ankara than the station myself on this visit but can’t say I’m over-impressed by what I’ve seen so far.
Now have to wait a few hours now before the next stage of the journey begins.