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Not as fast as Japanís Shinkansen, but Nizhny-Moscow high-speed rail is on the way

9 Oct '08
Russiaís state rail operator Russian Railways intends to spend no less than $497m by 2013 on a high-speed railway line connecting Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. When completed it will be the first modern high-speed rail link using new technology and rolling stock in Russia. What happened to plans to use Japanese technology and why the new trains will only run at half the speed they are designed for is another story.

The company has already spent $342m on the project, Sergey Kozyrev, head of Gorky Railway, a subsidiary of Russian Railways, told media in September. The projectís payback period is estimated to be nine years, Mr. Kozyrev added.

Saving time, spending money

Sergey Kozyrev told journalists that in 2009 a trip to Moscow would take three and a half hours, in 2011 the travel time would shrink to three hours and fifteen minutes, and by 2013 passengers would enjoy a three-hour journey. Today, the fastest express train between the cities takes four and a half hours and hits speeds in excess of 100 kph.

To realize its three hour goal, Russian Railways will have to completely upgrade the routeís infrastructure and purchase all new rolling stock. Mr. Kozyrev claimed that once the project was completed, trains on the section would run at speeds up to 160 kph, which is only half of what the rolling stock is capable of.

Reliable but tired

Itís no secret that Russian trains are vestiges of a bygone era and have the slowest average speeds of any modern EU countryóabout 45 kilometers per hour. Although the Russian rail system is extensive and reliable, as all Russian train travelers know, pulling over to let priority freight trains whiz by and stopping for long spells in the middle of nowhere are common.
The idea for a high-speed train between the countryís capital and its fourth largest city has been kicked around since 1995. However, it was not until 2001 that the RF Government formally included building a high-speed railway line between Nizhny and Moscow as part of its national transportation program through 2010.

The grand plan: 15 cities linked by high-speed rail

Both Sergey Kozyrev and Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, have often pushed to make high-speed trains a high priority investment.

Within the next seven years, high-speed rail is projected to link more than 17 Russian cities to Moscow including rail St. Petersburg, Adler (Sochi) and Nizhny Novgorod, to name but three. Speeds on these routes will vary between 160 and 350 kph and will rival todayís EU fast trains (but not Franceís crack TGV which can hit over 500 kph).

In order to offer such service, Russian Rail will have to invest in new seamlessly welded railway tracks, vastly re-designed and upgraded roadbeds, major station upgrades, as well as all new foreign rolling stock (Siemens has been tapped to supply engines and cars for the Nizhny route).

Although there is so-called high-speed service currently offered between Moscow and St. Petersburg, it is a hybrid train designed to run on the existing track. Construction of an independent high speed Moscow Ė St. Petersburg roadbed and track is already under way and is scheduled for completion in 2012-2014. The total length of this new line is almost 700 kilometers. When completed, trains will be able to reach speeds of 350 kph and reduce travel time to just a few hours.

The high-speed railway line connecting Moscow and Sochi is reportedly ready to begin construction. With these three high-speed lines all under development at the same time, completing them all will be a daunting task. In all, Russian Rail will have to build almost 3,000 km of new tracks (1,700 kilometers before the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, 700 km on the St. Petersburg route and 430 km for Moscow-Nizhny).

More than station facelifts

The Nizhny project includes more than just upgrading the 26 stations on the Nizhny Novgorod - Petushki (Vladimir Region) line. There needs to be new infrastructure to serve passengers like overhead bridges and platforms designed specifically for the new rolling stock. Russian Rail will also need to design and build separate maintenance facilities and renovate Nizhnyís ageing main terminal.

To actually launch the service, the company will need to redesign its traffic management and re-train personnel.

Fast, but not so fast

The plan is to have 12 high-speed trains running between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod daily: four trains in the morning, four in the afternoon and four in the evening, sources in the regional administration report.

The contract for the engines and cars was awarded Germanyís Siemens. Each of its Velaro-RUS trains will have a seating capacity of 604 passengers.

Russian Rail plans to buy eight such trains worth a total of $114m. Some time between December 2008 and January 2009 the first VelaroRUS train is to be delivered. It has already been given the name ďSapsanĒ. Next summer, it will be tested on a section of new track.

The Siemens Velaro-RUS is designed to run between 250 to 330 kph, but Russian Rail wonít promise these speeds on the Nizhny run. The maximum speed between the two cities will be no more than 160 kph.

This poses the logical (but so far hushed) question: is it indeed technically, financially or otherwise sensible to run high-speed trains along routes where they wonít be 100% efficient? Rather than answer directly, Russian Railís Vladimir Yakunin said that the projected speeds on the Nizhny Ė Moscow run would depend on a passenger flow, which was ďbeing assessed at the moment.Ē

Japanese alternative: faster, feasible but no deal

For a very long time Nizhny Governor Valery Shantsev was an ardent advocate of the Japanese high-speed rail solution, which uses seamless rails and eliminates all crossings so trains can maintain very high speed along elevated sections of track over populated areas. Gov. Shantsevís dream was to build a completely new railway line with trains running as fast as 350 kilometers per hour and covering the distance between the two cities in a sizzling 90 minutes.

The Japanese technology, known as Shinkansen, was supposed to be carried out in partnership with private investors (including the Japanese), federal authorities, Russian Railways and the administrations of the regions involved (Nizhny Novgorod, Vladimir and Moscow). The governorís office estimated that the cost would be between $11.4bn and $13.3bn.

Even as recently as last year, the project was still being talked up in the local press and the governor initiated a lot of expert meetings and a number of conferences with potential partners and investors in Nizhny and Tokyo.

In April 2007 during the governorís official visit to Japan, the influential Sumitomo group claimed it had enough expertise to shoulder the project and was ready to negotiate terms. Japanís Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Itsunori Onodera then assured the Russians of his countryís genuine business interest in building solid economic ties with the Nizhny Novgorod Region.
However, all this promise suddenly fell apart. The governorís energetic support evaporated and no official comments have ever been given as to why this project did not go forward.

Some pundits felt that the RF government stepped in and pushed for a more familiar Russia-Germany connection. Others claim that Russian Rail itself wanted more direct control of the project. However, Marchmont's analysts have all the reason to believe that regional leaders derailed the idea because they were envious. Whatever the truth, Nizhny will still be the first city in Russia to get truly modern high-speed rail. Considering that it takes an hour to get to any Moscow airport from the city center, then 45 minutes to wait, an hour to fly and another hour to get from Nizhnyís dilapidated airport to the city center, the new high-speed train will be faster and less expensive.

For reference:

Gorky Railway is a subsidiary of Russian Railways operating lines that connect central, north-western and northern parts of Russia with the Volga area, Urals and Siberia. The company serves 15 regions of Russia.
The total length of all railway lines is 12,086 kilometers.

Russian Railways is a state-owned holding company that accounts for 50% of the worldís cargo rail shipments. The company effects 80% of Russiaís domestic cargo shipments and is responsible for 40% of domestic passenger transportation.

Svetlana Zabalueva, Editor
Oleg Kouzbit, managing editor: ďIím glad you join us here and take The Bridge walk for Marchmontís weekly review of the Russian regionsí innovative present and future. Stay close and youíll find out more of how Russia is bridging the existing gap between its researchers and businesses.Ē
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