Lack of investment undermining Russian railway system

Lack of investment undermining Russian railway system

Outdated infrastructure, insufficient investment and poor management are endangering the Russian railway system, and this domestic problem is rapidly becoming an international one for Moscow, as it is hindering Russia from playing a key role in trade between China and Europe.

Russia’s national railway system is in trouble, considers The Jamestown Foundation adding that a lack of a developed highway system and increasing difficulties with the use of rivers for transport make Moscow rely heavily on the country’s long-haul railway network. The Kremlin also expects railways to help Russia play a key role in trade relations between China and Europe, but numerous railway modernisation and development issues are raising doubts that Russia can serve as such a land route.

One of the problems is that trains travel across the Trans-Siberian Railway (Trans-Sib) too slowly to make that route economically viable, considers the article’s author Paul Goble. While in China, cargo trains run at up to a hundred km/h, in Russia, they travel at only 35–40 km/h. According to Svobodnaya Pressa, “on certain parts of the Trans-Sib in Siberia” train speeds are much lower. To change this, Russia needs to spend more money on its railways, lay new tracks and improve management of the system.

Cargo train on Trans-Siberian Railway, September 2014. Photo: Alexey Zadonsky

Another serious issue is the melting of the permafrost in the Russian Far North — it is taking place much faster than projected, and pipelines and rail lines are among the first portions of infrastructure there to be undermined. They will have to be abandoned or rebuilt at a high cost, otherwise Russia will lose much of the capacity to export raw materials, on which its economic system depends.

These global problems are compounded by internal failures of state-owned Russian Railways such as an increased number of trains forced to stand idle. Between 2014 and 2018, around 650 trains stood idle each day, while the current figure is three times higher. Experts consider that the company has simply purchased more rail carriages instead of improving the management of flows and upgrading the quality of tracks to guarantee that trains can move quickly or at least in a timely and predictable manner.

Such problems combined with an increased number of rail carriages either lost or sent to the wrong destination ensure that domestic and international shippers are not likely to trust the company with their cargoes in the future. Problems with the railways are also pushing down production, as factories cannot count on the delivery of the raw materials or finished goods they need. However, there is little evidence that Russian Railways either understands those needs or is ready to address them, says Goble adding that the company is planning to decrease the number of its employees by 30,000 by 2025.

By Anna Litvina