Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 148

Post-Soviet railway problems made headlines when Ukraine announced a hazardous materials emergency after a train carrying toxic chemicals crashed on July 16 in the country’s Western Lviv region (see EDM, July 23). Fifteen tankers carrying liquid yellow phosphorous derailed, and six caught fire. The train carried a total of 58 tankers with 750 tons of phosphorous, en route from Kazakhstan to Poland via Russia and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian authorities declared a hazmat emergency in an area of about 90 square kilometers and evacuated about 1,000 local residents. On July 23 Ukraine’s Transport Ministry announced that the accident was caused by breaches of safety rules (Interfax, July 23).

The train crash and subsequent chemical leak was not Ukraine’s only rail accident in July. On July 22, a Chelyabinsk-Simferopol passenger train derailed in Gorlovka, Ukraine. A preliminary investigation indicated that that the accident was caused by the poor state of rails in Gorlovka (Interfax, July 22).

In recent years, the post-Soviet railway system managed to avoid major accidents, like the June 1989 disaster in Chelyabinsk region, when two passengers trains were destroyed by an explosion at a nearby gas pipeline, killing hundreds of people. However, railways are increasingly considered unsafe.

Notably, Russia’s rail monopoly, Russian Railways (RZD), which operates the bulk of the former Soviet railway network, has been hit by a series of accidents in recent months. On June 18 the same Chelyabinsk-Simferopol passenger train collided with a cargo train in Voronezh region, wounding 64 people. A cargo train derailed in Zabaikalsk region on July 11, blocking the Trans-Siberian railway.

The rising number of accidents has triggered the removal of regional railway executives. On February 1 and June 6, trains crashed along part of the Gorkovskaya railway network. In June 2007, RZD head Vladimir Yakunin sacked Viktor Sekhin, head of the Gorkovskaya regional network. Nonetheless, on July 19, yet another train derailed when passing through the Gorkovskaya railway network in Vladimir region (Regnum, July 19).

In some regions, accidents seem to happen with a discouraging regularity. On July 10 a Sverdlovsk-Priobiye passenger train derailed in Yekaterinburg region, and nine people were wounded in the accident. In 2006-2007, there were five crashes and 14 accidents in the region involving hazardous chemicals and oil products.

The local Prosecutor’s Office found that most accidents were caused by breaches of safety rules and technical problems. The Prosecutor’s Office said that 40% of railways are past due for regular inspections (UralPolit.Ru, July 11). In March 2007 the RZD management ordered the dismissal of Shevket Shaidullin, head of the railway network in Yekaterinburg region.

The Russian government has conceded that the country’s railway safety record remained a matter of concern. In June 2007, The Prosecutor-General’s Office found that the RZD had violated traffic safety and railway legislation. The Office said it had discovered more than 9,000 violations, including inadequate maintenance of trains and railways, their continued use beyond service life limits, and the use of low-quality spare parts. The Prosecutor-General’s Office also suggested that Russia’s Transportation Ministry had yet to approve a number of up-to-date railway regulations, notably rules related to handling hazardous cargo (RIA-Novosti, June 18).

RZD was created in September 2003 following a reorganization of Russia’s Railway Ministry. Now the state-controlled RZD employs 1.3 million people and the company funnels 1.3 billion tons of freight a year. It has pledged to do its best to sustain safe operations. In January-June 2007, the RZD reportedly allocated 11.7 billion rubles ($460 million) to develop its railway networks.

In the meantime, the RZD has readily pledged even more money to support showcase projects. RZD head Yakunin has indicated plans to invest 60 billion rubles ($2.35 billion) to in 2008-2009 to upgrade railways of Krasnodar region, the locale of the Sochi Olympics in 2014.

Last month, the RZD announced plans to invest 25 billion rubles ($980 million) by 2010 in developing links to the Russian ports in the Gulf of Finland, aiming to raise annual freight up to 36 million tons by 2010 (Interfax, June 29). On July 2, RZD said it had invested 200 million rubles ($7.8 million) to construct an oil terminal at Skovorodino railway station, which is expected to handle 15 million tons (110 million barrels) of oil exports to China per annum (RIA-Novosti, July 2).

However, RZD’s records indicate problems with fund disbursement. In the early 1990s, Russia planned to build a 660-kilometer high-speed railway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1997, the Russian authorities allocated nearly $2 billion to provide state guarantees for would-be investors. Subsequently, the planned railway was found unable to generate sufficient revenues to pay for its construction expenses. The project is yet to materialize, leaving in its wake allegations of fraud and massive embezzlement of government funds.

Nonetheless, the RZD has tended to float even more ambitious plans, including a tunnel to connect Sakhalin Island with the mainland. Finally, last April Russia disclosed an extraordinary project to build a transcontinental Yakutsk-Magadan-Anadyr-Alaska rail link, including the world’s longest subsea tunnel under the Bering Strait. Needless to say, the economic viability of these proposals remains very far from certain.