During the restoration work, archaeological findings from the late Byzantine period were uncovered. (Credit: Firat Fistik)

The future of Haydarpaşa train station, an Ottoman-era neoclassical icon of modern Istanbul, looks uncertain after a tender was awarded to a company owned by an executive close to ruling AKP party that would allow parts of historic station to be redeveloped.

The station, once a waypoint for migrants from rural Anatolia, was designed by German engineers and served as the western terminus of the Hejaz Railway. It has been unused since 2012. The government had hoped to integrate it into İstanbul’s suburban Marmaray line after a series of renovations, but the station remained closed after the network’s official opening in March.

There have been allegations that the government intended to turn the historic building into a commercial structure, such as a hotel, and more recently by controversy over the latest tender to develop a 25,000 square metre warehouse and depot area by the station into a cultural events centre.

A group of companies operated by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM), including Metro AŞ, Kültür AŞ, and İSBAK, were finalists for the tender, along with Hezarfen Consulting, a company run Hüseyin Avni Önder, a former ruling Justice and Development (AK) party official.

In October this year, the Turkish railway authority (TCDD) awarded the tender to Hezarfen after disqualifying the IMM consortium on a technicality, provoking criticism by activists and the city’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The municipality has since filed a legal challenge to annul the result.

Companies close to the ruling party have been awarded major development contracts in Istanbul in the past. Önder is the former director of the AKP’s İstanbul Provincial Organization and the ex-director of the Archers’ Foundation. Bilal Erdoğan, the president’s son, sits on the foundation’s board of trustees. 

Restoration works at Haydarpasha.(Credit: Firat Fistik)

Founded in 2017 with a meagre starting capital of 10,000 Turkish liras, Hezarfen has enjoyed a meteoric rise, working on projects with the Turkish presidency, state broadcaster TRT and the official Anadolu Agency, as well as the Turkish postal service (PTT), Turkish Airlines and the railway authority that oversaw the tender. 

Hezarfen organised the Manzikert Victory Commemoration events held by the Archers’ Foundation under the auspices of the presidency in August this year, as well as the Conquest Cup, also organised by the Archers’ Foundation. 

Although the Istanbul municipality consortium was a finalist for the railway tender, it was not invited to the final meeting with the railway authority on October 18. TCDD said it had awarded Hezarfen the contract, due to minor technical and linguistic issues in the bid, such as using contemporary Turkish terms in the tender document instead of more archaic, legalistic terms. 

İmamoğlu quickly condemned the decision and announced the municipality’s intent to file legal action.

“IMM affiliates were eliminated from the tender of Haydarpaşa… unlawfully,” he said in a statement. “We will bring this case to trial and we will file a criminal complaint.”

Cahit Turhan, the minister of transport and infrastructure, pushed back against criticism of the railway authority’s decision, saying the problems in IMM’s bid document showed it was unprepared to take on the project.

Tugay Kartal, a veteran railway employee, said that a legal action would be filed for the cancellation of the tender. (Credit: Firat Fistik)

Haydarpaşa Solidarity, a group of activists that advocates for the station’s return to operation as soon as possible, held a protest in front of the station two days after the announcement, urging the railway authority to award the contract to the Istanbul municipality in order to protect the station’s public status. 

“Our protest is the start against this manipulated tender and looting attempt,” said Tugay Kartal, a veteran railway employee who used to work at the station.  “We will file a legal action for the cancellation of the tender and we will keep fighting by denouncing those who rigged the bid.”

Esin Koymen, the chairwoman of Istanbul’s engineers and architects union, claims that the railway tender was “manipulated.” (Credit: Firat Fistik)

The government’s decision to award the contract to Hezarfen also drew criticism from the city’s engineers and architects union, with its chairwoman Esin Koymen calling the tender “manipulated.” 

We, the Chamber of Architects, have said that the tender was manipulated since the beginning of the process,” said Koymen in a statement, criticising the decision to hand over a public space to a private company. “We still stand behind what we said.”