Moscow-Kazan high-speed railway project remains debatable

Russian Railways' project to connect Moscow and Kazan by a high-speed railway was originally scheduled to begin in 2018, but the construction hasn't started so far. Meanwhile, the project price has increased significantly, while Russia's tense relations with the West don't let it count on European sponsors.

The projected Moscow-Kazan high-speed rail line is supposed to become the only network in Russia that can handle train speeds exceeding 400 km/h, says Railway Technology. However, no real actions and construction have taken place yet, and the project remains debatable, according to Frost & Sullivan consulting analyst Ivan Kondratenko.

The idea of the construction of a high-speed rail line between Moscow and Kazan was announced almost ten years ago, in 2009. An initial 700-km-long line was meant to be extended to Yekaterinburg by 2030 with the ultimate goal to complete the 7,000-km-long line connecting Moscow and Beijing, said the analyst. Now such projects are in question, as the Russian economy and state budget are currently not in the best shape to handle large infrastructure objects. Thus, Russian Railways has to attract foreign partners for financing and technology sharing to complete its projects.

European conglomerates such as Siemens and SNCF are unlikely to participate in the project because of Russia's deteriorated relations with the West, while China has shown its interest, as the line is part of the potential high-speed link between Moscow and Beijing, explained Kondratenko. He added that using Chinese technology and equipment for construction was one of the main conditions from the Chinese side, and the Russian party agreed to these conditions due to underdeveloped local capability and lack of access to Western technologies. In April 2014, China Railway International Group agreed to provide a loan of 400 billion rubles ($6,2 billion) for the construction of the Moscow-Kazan rail line over a 20-year period.

Taiwan High Speed Rail train. Photo: Encino

In 2013, the project's initial budget was estimated at nearly 1 trillion rubles in 2013, but this year, the estimated cost has increased to nearly 1,7 trillion rubles (around $25 billion), with 700 billion rubles likely to come in the form of a non-refundable subsidy from the Russian government.

Russian Railways expects that the Moscow-Kazan line will serve around 10,5 million passengers in the first year of operation. The passenger capacity is supposed to increase to 20 million a year by 2035 and 25 million a year by 2050. According to Kondratenko, the goal is very ambitious. ''There will be a certain increase,'' he said, but even 10 million ''is actually eight times higher than the current number of passengers''. In Russian regions, the level of incomes is not high enough to afford travel on high-speed trains, so there is no reasonable justification for such an increase. Besides, the authors of the project consider that the line will contribute to Russia's GDP seven times more than its total cost. ''Again, there are no concrete justifications of these numbers,'' the expert pointed out. However, in case of the completion of the wider railway project from Moscow to Beijing, the line can increase convenience and decrease the time of cargo transportation.

Construction on the Moscow-Kazan section was originally scheduled to start in 2018 and be completed by 2024. Considering that the project is still being in the early stages of development, the timeline is likely to be revised again, considers Kondratenko.

By Anna Litvina