Domestic and Foreign Challenges Prompt Moscow to Announce Unrealistically Ambitious Railway Plan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 52

(Source: Steelguru)

Russia’s enormous size and central continental location—coupled with the inherent problems associated with Russian road, water and air networks (see EDM, October 6, 2015, September 17, 2019, April 2, 2020)—have meant that the country has traditionally devoted much more attention to its railways than most other states. And in recent weeks, Moscow approved an ambitious new plan to upgrade and expand the domestic railroad network over the next 15 years. Spurring the plans is the fact that some Russian regions could soon find themselves cut off from the center as a result of the aforementioned issues with domestic air and road connections (, April 4; Rosbalt, November 28, 2019). Moreover, the Kremlin has been under increasing pressure to quickly upgrade the country’s internal rail lines due to growing Chinese readiness to bypass Russia entirely as part of Beijing’s trans-Eurasian Belt and Road transit network. But modern Russia’s record of implementing grandiose infrastructure plans (super-high-profile singular projects like the Kerch Strait Bridge notwithstanding) is anything but stellar. And the problems Russia presently faces—including global warming, which makes laying track in much of the country prohibitively expensive—mean it is that much more unlikely Moscow will meet its new goals.

The new transportation plan was approved by the Russian government on March 26. According to Transport Minister Yevgeny Ditrikh, it is intended to ensure that the regions of the Russian Federation are better integrated with both one another and with the international rail networks connecting East and West (between China and Europe) and North and South (between Russia and Iran, the Middle East and South Asia). That requires both upgrading the roadbeds and constructing new rail lines in order to cut the length of time to move freight and thus make Russian routes more attractive to foreign business and government (, March 28;, April 9;, March 30, 31).

The plan specifically calls for increasing the capacity of the Trans-Siberian and Baikal–Amur Mainline (BAM) railways from the current 182 million tons to 305 million tons by 2035. The plan also calls for cutting the length of time to ship along them from ten days or more, to seven in 2024, and “no more than six” by the mid-2030s. At the same time, it specifies that travel times on the north-south route are to be cut to no more than 2.1 days by 2024 and 1.9 days by 2035. Furthermore, it projects that container traffic will rise by 400 percent by 2024 and nearly 700 percent by 2035. These plans are mostly concerned with foreign trade and even more about ensuring that China will not seek to develop rail lines bypassing Russia that the Central Asian and South Caucasus countries might seek to use instead of Russian overland corridors (see EDM, February 25, 2020, July 19, 2019, June 10, 2019).

Domestically, the plan calls for bringing into balance the amount of track in European versus Asiatic Russia. At present, there are almost 50 percent more kilometers of track in the more populated former than in the sparsely populated latter portion of the country; this impedes the economic development of Siberia and the Russian Far East as well as limits Russia’s international trade potential. The plan calls for the construction of a major new rail line across the northern regions of the Russian Federation and the expansion or construction of new high-speed rail networks in the more populated European portions of the country. And it calls for the further digitalization of the system, both to speed up travel times and reduce costs (, March 28;, April 9;, March 30, 31).

Even the backers of the plan recognize it is unlikely to be fully realized. Pavel Ivankin, the president of the Moscow Institute for Research on Railway Transportation Problems, concedes no one should expect the document to be fully realized. At best, it may serve as an indication of the directions Moscow would like the system to move in (, March 31). Ivankin does not attempt to lay out all the problems that stand in the way, but they are massive.

First of all, the Russian rail system, as Ivankin has conceded in other articles, is in serious trouble due to aging track and equipment not to mention poor management (Vgudok, May 29, 2018). Even to bring the system up to where it is supposed to be, with 85,000 kilometers of regularly functioning track, all trains on schedule, and a reliable ability to transfer cargo from foreign-gauge track to Russian-gauge and back again, would require massive investment.

Second, the plan does not provide funding even for such minimum needed upgrades, let alone the grandiose improvements Moscow is calling for. Instead, the plan punts on that issue, suggesting funding will somehow be found via joint government and private business partnership or expanded foreign investment. This is an unrealistic hope given the collapse of oil prices on which Moscow relies, the shortage of foreign direct investment in Russia (due in part to international sanctions), and the continuing capital flight (RBC, April 13; Ehorussia, April 14).

And third, the plan’s two most ambitious projects, expanding high-speed networks among Russian cities in the European portion of the country and building a railroad across the Arctic north, are unlikely to be realized, albeit for different reasons. The former is about passenger travel rather than freight. At present, the state-owned Russian Railways makes its money from freight (roughly 90 percent of its income), not ridership given cutbacks on passenger service in most regions since 2014 (Flashnord, December 23, 2014). In turn, passengers are unlikely to flock to high-speed trains; they would rather travel by air, given the distances and time involved (Znak, October 26, 2017). And the latter railway construction, across Russia’s polar north, is even less likely to be built given the high costs of building track across areas of rapidly melting permafrost (see EDM, February 12, 2018 and July 17, 2019).

As a result, when the COVID-19 pandemic finally ends and analysts begin looking at this plan that Moscow approved in the middle of a health crisis, neither Russians in the regions nor Beijing is likely to be impressed. Consequently, the chances that these overly ambitious rail projects will be implemented are certain to decline even further.